Chapter 9

Sarawak : 2002

Will

Will caught his fall on a tree, but his right arm skidded hard against its cracked bark. He could smell the blood. Funny how it smelled like metal, like rust. Man and machine weren’t made of such different stuff after all.

Anwar kneeled down beside him and looked concerned. “Ouch,” he said. “Maybe you need stitch again.”

Will had gotten into a motorcycle accident in town a month ago, and the emergency room physician at Kuching State Hospital had stitched up some small gashes on his face and elbow. Will had healed quickly. He always healed quickly.

Now, not in town but surrounded by acres upon acres of primary growth rainforest, Will took off his backpack and, all with his left hand, unzipped the main compartment and fished around in it for his first aid kit.

“Naw,” he said. “I think I just need to clean it off and put some gauze on it so that I don’t drip blood everywhere. Nobody likes a bloody jungle path.”

Hiking was a sacrosanct business at the O/URC. Everyone did it with each other. It didn’t matter if someone annoyed the hell out of you, or didn’t know five words of any of the languages that you spoke—at least once a month you went off into the woods with that person. The people that you actually liked you hiked with at least once a week otherwise they started to think that something was wrong and take offense.

Anwar was one of Will’s favorite people at the O/URC, so they went hiking together in the jungles in and around their research area one to two times each week. Anwar was, at twenty-four, still very much the scrappy kid from Sematan whose preternatural ability to “read” the jungle and its mood swings had (despite Anwar’s lack of any higher education or scientific training) secured him a position of unspecified but unchallenged authority at the O/URC.

Dr. St. James cleaned and dressed his own wound with the precise, economical moves of a “real” doctor. He only had a thin strip of gauze left in his kit, so he placed it along the center of his scrape and taped it to his arm with three tiny band-aids.

“So the American girl is a Chinese girl?” Anwar asked.

“She’s Chinese in race but American in nationality,” said Will.

“Yeah,” he said, “like Malaysian-Chinese.”

“Exactly,” said Will. “Like Linda.” Linda was the O/URC’s head of veterinary medicine.

“But less annoying-lah, hopefully,” said Anwar.

“Linda means well,” said Will.

“No,” said Anwar. “She means being very, very annoying.”

Will laughed. “You’re right. But she’s a very good vet.”

“True,” said Anwar. “True.”

“Let’s get going—I promised Wan I’d check on the state of the six-ten path, and we have to get back to campus before noon so that we can eat and shower and get to the airport in time,” said Will, standing.

Marin was scheduled to arrive at the airport in Kuching at four-thirty that afternoon, and Will was actually nervous. Marin was someone that he could see himself being friends with in Montreal. However, there weren’t that many people in Montreal that he could see himself being friends with in Montreal, so this metric was more than suspect. As the months had passed waiting for Marin’s visa application to be approved, Will had begun to worry that his impression of the girl had been wrong. What if Marin’s low-key California cool didn’t translate to Borneo? What if she had ulterior motives? What if she had a nervous breakdown? (This particular English phrase needed no translation for the longstanding Iban and Bidayuh members of the O/URC’s staff for a reason.) Was Will responsible for Marin if she turned out to be crazy or bitchy or incompetent?

Whatever, Will thought. Wan had wanted to hire her too, and he was the one with a genuine say in such matters. Besides, Marin had gotten her fellowship transferred, or what was left of it at least, so the O/URC wouldn’t even be paying her anything but her visa application fees and plane ticket fare for her first six months of work. If it didn’t work out, no harm, no foul.

Will and Anwar punched silently through wet forest, and after a minute both men froze in position. They both had heard the same thing: a whisper, really; a few branches broken in quick succession. Both men’s expertise and intuition had told them that a wild orangutan was nearby in the canopy, a female, and that she was moving fast.

“Is it Rini?” asked Anwar.

“She’s moving that way,” said Will, pointing southwest. “Can we cut across through there?”

They moved quickly, backtracking a few yards and then trotting down a narrow path that led the same way that the orangutan was going. She slowed her pace in front of a mango tree, and the two men caught up. As she swung out from a nearby dipterocarp to grab at a ripe piece of yellow fruit, her fur flashed bright orange in the sunlight for a moment and her pregnant belly came clearly into Will’s view. She bit into the mango and the expanded radii and circumference of her simian jaw contorted smoothly with the chewing of it.

“It’s Rini,” Will whispered, taking his notebook and a pen out of his backpack without taking his eyes off the orangutan.

“She look okay,” Anwar said.

“I can’t believe that she’s the same age as Penny,” Will said.

Penny was an ex-captive adult female orangutan who had spent most of her life as the pet of a high-ranking military officer. She had been removed from her cage in the officer’s home and brought to the O/URC for rehabilitation two months ago. She was much fatter and weaker than Rini due to her diet of pandan cake and lack of exercise outside the act of raising pieces of pandan cake to her face. Nevertheless, she was a lively presence, gesturing to and lip-smacking at any humans that came within range of her quarantine cage at the O/URC. When Penny had been let out of her cage last week so that the O/URC vet Linda could check out a small unidentified sore behind her ear, she had jumped out of Linda’s assistant’s arms and run off, climbing up and onto the roof of a neighboring cage. She’d shrieked and lip-smacked at the assistant and other staff members who’d tried to coax her down.

If she settled down enough to be released one day and mate, Penny would make a skittish, combative mother, unlike Rini, who hung sideways, silent and without expression, her left hand and foot secured on a tree branch, and gnawing at the mango in her right hand.

Sometimes visiting researchers at the O/URC would wonder why ex-captive orangutans like Penny acted out. Certainly the ex-captives’ time in captivity had been awful and physically debilitating, but once rescued, fed, and rehabilitated medically, shouldn’t their natural instincts kick in? Couldn’t they look at a wild orangutan and a human being and tell immediately which they belonged with? Did apes even have the neurological physiology and chemistry to fall prey to human psychosocial disorders like Stockholm syndrome or abandoned child syndrome?

To some extent this type of skepticism was valid, and some orangutans were just this resilient. However, the more adaptable a creature, Will believed, the more susceptible it could be to non-physical forms of trauma. A bug kept in a jar for a year and then released was still a bug. An orangutan, on the other hand, was intelligent enough to get confused.

Even Rini, one of only a few hundred thousand wild orangutans left in the world, looking as if she’d grown out of the jungle just as seamlessly as the mango tree she was feeding from: this very act, eating in plain view of two humans, was contrary to her better instincts. Sure, Will and Anwar had tracked her before—Anwar since she was young—and they’d slowly earned her trust over time. However, Rini knew nothing about human motivation. What if since their last encounter the men had stumbled upon hard times and decided to poach an orangutan for some quick cash? For better or worse, Rini had adapted to two human beings, sometime predators of her kind. Some combination of laziness, curiosity, and hard calculation had led her to decide that she would rather let Will and Wan watch her eat this mango than duck their trail and keep searching for food.

Six hours later Will and Anwar were at Kuching International Airport holding a piece of copy paper that had “MARIN CHOO” written across it in black permanent marker. Like all of Will’s attempts at any craft-like project, it looked like the construction of a ten-year-old.

Kuching, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, was a post-colonial river town whose balance of sun-baked sleepiness and low-key enterprise seemed, at times, more Catalan than Straits in temperament. It was a little over two hours from the O/URC by car; a little under two hours by motorbike.

On those few occasions when Will and Anwar had come into town together previously, they had caravanned in on a pair of the O/URC’s bright blue Hondas. This time they had borrowed Linda’s tiny pine-green Proton sedan (Will drove) and blasted the Stones and the air-conditioning at full volume. They’d sung (Anwar well and Will badly) along with Mick, but the start-and-stop traffic coming into the city had still made the drive seem long.

People, mainly Malaysians on or returning from vacations, came out of the airport baggage claim and down the fenced-in arrivals track, rolling and shouldering unfashionable parcels of luggage. Three Malay college-age girls walked out together in a line; their white tudungs made them look like Matroyshka dolls with backpacks. Will had a brief and specific vision of himself in ten years, returning from a two-week vacation in Paris and shouldering his belongings in an ugly red duffel bag with frayed white tubing outlining its circular ends. Although he’d never lived in Paris, it still felt wrong that the site of his hypothetical vacation should be a European city and his hypothetical home an Asian one. He had somehow leapfrogged from science boy to nature boy to expat boy without making a conscious decision to be this last thing, a creature whose borrowed privilege and suspect self-exile Will had always regarded in the abstract with some amount of scorn.

Just as Will had this thought, a girl with a crow tattoo and matching teal-and-purple plaid luggage came down the walkway. She lifted her sunglasses up a notch and peered underneath, scanning the crowd. Will waved to Marin. She saw him and wheeled her bags over to him and Anwar.

“Welcome to Borneo,” Will said.

The hawker center that they stopped at for lunch was an open-air tile and concrete structure that looked something like a parking garage. It was filled with cheap plastic tables and chairs. Along its perimeter, Chinese and Malay men and women pan-fried, steamed, and boiled noodles, meat, and rice at food stalls. Fans bolted to the top of the structure’s support columns spun to white blurs and panned slowly from side to side.

Despite its humble mise-en-scène, Will had gradually come around to his coworkers’ opinion that this hawker center had some of the best food in Kuching. Its regulars included people from all walks of life: lawyers, government officials, university students, bus drivers, nurses, construction workers, and auto repair men all sat at tables consuming bowls of noodles, plates of fried meat and rice, and colorful sweets and snacks. Will was, at this moment, however, the only white person in the crowd.

Anwar went to a stall in the far corner to order his food while Will led Marin to the near row of food stalls. “This woman makes pretty good char kuay teow, which is a fried rice noodle dish. This guy here makes kolo mee, which is supposedly a local specialty, but it involves ramen noodles which I tend to stay away from now that I’m an impoverished researcher instead of an impoverished graduate student.”

Marin laughed, and they proceeded to the next stall.

“Oh, this is good,” said Will. “This guy sells ais kacang, which is this shaved ice dessert.”

“I want that later,” said Marin.

They continued around nearly the entire perimeter of vendors. They liked the same things, thought the same things were funny or gross or odd. Marin got fried rice from a vendor that Will recommended, and Will got a char kuay teow. Anwar was sitting at a table alone, and almost finished with his rice dish, when they sat down with their trays across from him.

“What happened to your arm?” Marin asked, pointing to Will’s arm scrape from that morning.

“Orangutan bite,” Anwar deadpanned.

“Ha-ha-ha,” said Will. “What a comedian.” He explained to Marin, “I slid while hiking up a muddy path this morning and scraped myself. Orangutans have bitten humans before at the O/URC, but not very often. You got your rabies shots, though, right?”

“Yes,” said Marin. “All three of them.”

“None of the orangutans are rabid, but there are a lot of macaque monkeys around, and they’re very aggressive and once in awhile one of them is infected,” Will said.

“Once a macaque almost bite my thumb off,” said Anwar. He held up his right hand, thumb-side out. There was a tiny white scar where his thumb was joined to his palm, two small raised lines like acute and grave accent marks. “I am eating cookies, and macaque, like, love cookies. I don’t know he’s there, he’s on my roof. He drop down—” Anwar mimed the monkey dropping down in front of him. “—and is grabbing my hand with the cookie. I hit him away and throw the cookie, thinking he go run and get the cookie. Instead he grab my hand again and bite my thumb.” Anwar put his thumb in his mouth, made a dry expectoral noise, opened his mouth, and out popped a piece of chicken meat. Anwar smiled wide.

Marin almost choked on her rice. She looked at Will and raised her eyebrows as if to say, how awesome is this guy? Will smiled, shook his head, and looked down, which meant: yeah, I know, he’s totally awesome.

“I’m scared he have rabies, but he okay,” said Anwar. “Just don’t eat cookies, the macaques won’t bother you.”

“Yeah,” said Will, “that’s not really true, but definitely never, ever, ever feed them cookies. That’s a surefire way to invite trouble into your life.”

“Trouble?” said Marin. “Don’t you mean ‘monkey’ business?”

Ehhhhehhh...” said Will. “That was terrible.”

Marin laughed. “I had to get it out of my system, sorry. I’m done ‘monkeying’ around now.”

Now Will laughed for real. Marin and Anwar looked at each other and cracked up too. Will couldn’t believe it—he had actually pulled it off. He had found a workable compromise for his orientation issue. All of his anxiety these past few months had been for nothing. Marin was here, she was totally awesome, she totally got him and got Sarawak, and Will couldn’t wait to get back to the O/URC and get to work.

Marin’s orientation to the O/URC consisted of walking around the campus with Will to meet all of the core players, and, after each meeting, walking out of earshot and getting the scuttlebutt from Will on that person’s quirks and pet peeves, as well as Will’s tips on how to curry favor with him or her.

First they went to see Wan, whom Marin had not spoken to since his and Will’s ill-fated presentation at Pac in August.

Wan was in his office, looking at the report of the O/URC’s latest release. The release team had been Will, three other staff members, and a helicopter pilot, a Chinese man from Kuching that everyone called Jo-Jo even though his name was actually Bo-Yim. Will and another staff member had sedated eighteen orangutans, packed them in crates, and loaded the crates into the helicopter. Jo-Jo had flown the crated orangutans to a new drop-off site outside Batang Kapuas while Will and the others had driven the jeep out to meet them by land. The anesthetic that they had given the orangutans had started to wear off when they arrived. They had immediately opened the crates, and Will and another staff member had checked the apes’ vitals and helped them walk off the drug. They had packed the empty crates back into the chopper, driving and flying the vehicles back to the O/URC minutes before sunset. A textbook O/URC release.

Will reintroduced Wan and Marin, and Wan asked Marin how her flight had been.

“I slept through most of it, and you can’t really ask for anything more than that,” she said.

Will nodded. That’s how she described a twenty-hour flight with two stopovers—she got it.

“So one thing I want you to be thinking about is,” Wan said, “how do we get people overseas—in the States, in the West, in other places in Asia—to care about these small yet critical things we do here? I used to think this is the easy job—telling people all the things we do. Now I know—there are so many causes. You need something special, something different and new, to break through. Do you know what I mean?”

Wan’s ceiling fan, which was on at a low setting, creaked.

“I think I know what you mean,” said Marin. “You want to capture the urgency of the orangutan’s dilemma in a narrative.”

“Yes!” said Wan, snapping his fingers. Will had never seen him snap his fingers before, but was not surprised that he did it well, exactly the way that they did it in old movies. “Exactly! A narrative. That’s what we need, a narrative.”

After leaving Wan, Will walked Marin to the medical station for her next introductions.

It was a nice day; a gentle breeze tinkled the wind chimes that hung at the entrance gate several hundred yards away. Will was glad that Marin’s first impression of the O/URC was on a day like this.

“The key to Wan is to run everything by him first,” Will said. “He’s not a micromanager, but he likes to be the guy who knows everything.”

They approached the medical center (or “med,” as it was usually called, Will explained to Marin), a plain green building with narrow rolled-plate-glass windows and a flat concrete roof. It was the only building at the O/URC with air-conditioning. As they turned off the concrete lattice path that connected some of the main buildings (the administrative offices, “office;” the canteen, “canteen;” and the meeting hall, “meet”) onto a narrow dirt path leading to med, the veterinary assistant Dilip emerged from the front door of med, holding hands with an orangutan female named Winnie and walking her down the steps. Winnie was tipsy with anesthetic.

“What happened to Winnie?” asked Will.

Winnie was wearing a paper surgical mask to protect her from germs during her walk through the main grounds. Dilip was still wearing his scrubs and had a surgical mask hanging loose on his neck. Protocol dictated that Dilip should have changed from his scrubs into street clothes before leaving med, but likely Dilip had had his hands full with Winnie and had made an exception.

“She went crazy, man,” said Dilip. “And Malik shot her with the tranq. She rest okay now so Linda is wanting her back in O.Q.” O.Q. was Orangutan Quarantine.

“Is Linda operating right now?” asked Will.

“No, she just checking on the baby ex-caps,” said Dilip.

Will introduced Marin to Dilip.

“I should get her back,” Dilip said, referring to Winnie. “You guys going to canteen for dinner?”

“Yep,” said Will. “Ayam goreng night, my favorite.”

Dilip smiled and walked away with the petite ape.

“Ayam goreng—fried chicken?” said Marin.

“Uh-huh,” said Will. “Look at you, all knowing of the Bahasa.”

“Aren’t ‘fried’ and ‘chicken’ two of the first words that you learn in every language?” Marin asked.

Will laughed and opened the door to med. Cold air wafted out, and he and Marin went in. When the door had closed behind them, Will said, “Dilip’s a super nice guy, quiet, but very easy to work with. You haven’t been sick in the past two weeks, have you? Cold? Flu?”

“No,” said Marin.

“Cool,” said Will. “Then we’ll go meet some ex-captive orangutans, which we call ‘ex-caps.’ And Linda, our chief vet.”

Will led Marin down a short hallway to the locker room. They took turns using the changing stall to change into scrubs. They put paper masks on their faces and plastic booties over their shoes and exited the locker room directly into a small room with a sink, where Will taught Marin to scrub her hands and arms clean with brown antiseptic soap. As a final precaution, they put on purple latex gloves.

They left through the scrub room’s other door directly into the quarantined area of med. Will led Marin down a short hallway lit with mirror-backed blue LEDs to a door with a small silver sign that said: “Transitional Animal Intake: Level 5 Quarantine.” Will opened the door and led Marin inside.

The lights were dimmed very low, and Simon & Garfunkel was playing softly on a boombox in the corner. Linda, a thirty-eight-year-old Malaysian-Chinese woman wearing faded blue scrubs, was peering into the next-to-last Plexiglass box in a row of one-foot-square Plexiglass boxes laid along the center of a narrow stainless steel table in the middle of the room. She had an LED pen flashlight in her right hand that she was pressing on at the end with her thumb and aiming from various angles at the orangutan cub curled up in the middle of the box.

“What is this, Simon & Garfunkel?” said Will. “I didn’t know you were such a hippie, Linda.”

“What?” said Linda. She stood straight, placed the flashlight in her shirt pocket, and walked over to them. “Where’s my car, lying at the bottom of a ditch somewhere?” She muttered something in Chinese, and Marin laughed.

Linda looked alarmed.

“The glorious Proton is fine,” Will said. “This is Marin Choo, our new communications director. She speaks Amoy, Cantonese, and Tagalog fluently.”

“And, full disclosure, a tiny bit of Mandarin,” Marin said.

“Your parents are from Fujian?” Linda asked.

“My mom was,” Marin said. “But she grew up in the Philippines. My dad is Cantonese from Hong Kong.”

“And they met where, in Hong Kong?” Linda asked.

“In the U.S.,” Marin said. “In Ohio, of all places.”

“You must get very confused sometimes,” Linda said. “Nice to meet you. Dr. Linda Tsai.” She reached out her gloved hand.

Marin took it, and Linda gave it a wan squeeze.

Linda took off her glasses and rubbed the lenses with the bottom of her scrub shirt. She put them back on her face. “So what are you doing for us, exactly?” she said.

“As I understand it,” Marin said, “I’m reaching out to international corporate consumers of palm oil and the big environmental NGO players around the world to educate them about palm oil’s harmful effects on the rainforest in Borneo and its numerous endangered species inhabitants, including the orangutans, of course.”

“And then?” said Linda.

“And then nobody ever makes or buys another bottle of palm oil again,” Will said. “That’s how good this girl is.”

“No pressure or anything,” Marin said.

“I’m sure you will do the best you can,” Linda said.

Will was both annoyed at and anxious about Linda’s withholding of direct approval of the (his) Marin project. As Anwar had indicated that morning, many people found Linda annoying, but she also was an influential person at the O/URC, and Will preferred to keep on her good side.

“Well, shouldn’t we show Marin the babies?” Will said. “If that won’t get the inspiration juices flowing, I don’t know what will.”

“It’s okay if they’re too vulnerable right now,” Marin said. “I understand.”

“It’s not just that they’re vulnerable,” Linda said. “They are also rare tropical animals undergoing an environmental transition with specific procedures. They got enough cooing over at the petting zoo we rescued them from.”

“I don’t ‘coo’ generally,” Marin said, “but that makes sense.”

“Hey Linda—Anwar and I saw Rini this morning,” Will said.

He was not arbitrarily changing the subject. The pregnant wild orangutan that he’d seen on his hike that morning had never, for whatever reason, let down her guard around Linda. Whenever Linda tried to follow Rini, the ape would go ballistic: breaking off branches and throwing them at Linda and lip-smacking until Linda left her sight. It was a sore point for the veterinarian, who prided herself on the respect she earned from all of the other wild apes and the ex-caps, all while keeping a disciplined distance from them. In bringing up Rini, Will, like an adult male orangutan bellowing a long call through a stretch of staked-out forest territory, had reasserted his position as Linda’s equal of sorts.

“Yeah, is she okay?” Linda said.

“Positively glowing,” Will said. “I think she’s five months.”

“Yeah, we knew that,” Linda said. “Captain Kirk is the father. They mated three times in June.”

Captain Kirk was the dominant male in Section C, the southeastern part of their research area. He had been named thusly by Wan for his broad Captain Kirk-like shoulders and playful but aggressive personality. His fur was also darker around his shoulders, like a Starfleet uniform.

Despite Linda’s initial pithy, nonplussed response, she next asked Will, “You think we can go to Section C next time we hike?”

This was as far as Linda would go in asking Will to help get her “in” with Rini, not that such a thing was necessarily even possible.

“Of course,” he said.

Linda nodded.

“Most of the babies are sleeping right now, but Gia is the oldest and she’s awake,” she said. “She’s pretty strong. You can come look at her for one minute, Marin. Just keep your mask on, okay?”

Will and Marin followed Linda to the first Plexiglass box, where a dark brown body the size of a large mango was lying on its back on cotton bedding; the sheet’s print of thin red lines crisscrossed into diamonds had faded to pink. Gia’s sparse reddish fur stuck out from her torso and limbs at odd angles and her big black eyes blinked open and closed slowly. Will smiled; there was still nothing quite as miraculous as a baby orangutan. He moved to the side and gently pushed Marin closer to the box, and he watched her peer in. Gia yawned, her teacup lip jaw stretching into her neck, and a single tiny bubble popped at the corner of her mouth. Marin didn’t speak, and her face was obscured by her surgical mask, but Will could see the love and ache and laughter in the American’s eyes. Now, more than ever, he knew that their side had to win.

Marin and Will walked for several minutes in silence as they left med.

“Linda hates me,” Marin said.

Will considered contradicting her, but said instead, “You’ll win her over eventually. Just remember, the work is key with her. If you produce results that she can actually see, she’ll love you forever. Then you won’t be able to get rid of her. Also, she’s very religious.”

“Christian or Buddhist?”

“Christian,” said Will. “Are you...?”

“Lapsed Catholic,” Marin said.

“Yeah, that won’t help you with Linda,” said Will, “or, you know, not burning in hell for all of eternity.” He added, “she doesn’t wear her wedding ring in quarantine, but she’s married. Her husband is an accountant, I think? He lives in Kuching, and she drives out there every other weekend and stays over for one or two nights.”

“Interesting,” Marin said. “Where to next?”

“We’re going to take a slight detour,” Will said.

They walked side-by-side down a narrow concrete path. To their right, a row of large flowering tropical plants that the O/URC’s botanist had planted separated them from med’s parking and waste management area. To their left, barely kept at bay by constant maintenance by their grounds staff, was the jungle.

After a minute, an unmarked concrete road appeared on their left. Will turned onto this road, and Marin followed.

“The babies that you just saw at med are only there for a few more weeks, until they get their vaccinations and get stronger,” Will said. “They will join the other ex-caps out in Orangutan Quarantine, or ‘O.Q.,’ then. That’s where we’re going now.”

The jungle—such an abstraction, an emotional rhetorical flourish really, when Will and Marin had been last standing together in the elevator bank of the Pac Development Bank’s office tower in San Francisco—was now, in all its dense millions of parts, growing up around them. That Eden had been a jungle—not a beach, berry field, or volcanic hot spring—seemed right and just to Will. Like all righteous things, the jungle had an order: a kind out of reach of ordinary human perception. To know with too much self-certainty its workings—why the loris hunts at night, the green death of a closing leaf swallowing black insects into its poisoned deep—was to unwittingly help sow the seeds of its destruction. Scale was relative: a lesson that Will and Marin’s species always seemed to learn too late.

Will and Marin walked approximately one kilometer before the road ended at a chain-link fence, where one of the O/URC’s miniature flatbed trucks was parked. A common padlock locked the gate to the fence, which Will opened with one of the many keys on his keychain. He led Marin inside, and locked the door behind them. (One never knew when a macaque was going to get a little too brave and curious for its own good.) O.Q. was six thirty-foot-by-thirty-foot pitched roofs placed three-by-two in a rectangle, supported by twenty-two-foot-high concrete columns and enclosed with chain-link fence on all four sides. Inside were twelve twelve-foot-by-sixteen-foot twelve-foot-high cages, each of which held seven or more orangutans. The animals smelled rich, crude, and haunted—potent as a new well of petroleum just pumped to surface.

“O.Q. duty shifts from week to week,” Will said. “The person who is on duty comes two times a day to check on the orangutans, hose off their cages, and feed them. He or she records his observations in the log book, and reports any significant matters to Linda and Wan.” Will picked up the log book and removed it from its dirt-caked ziplock bag wrapping. A leather-bound ledger the size of a photo album, Will flipped a few pages to show Marin: it was filled with grid paper and hand-written notations.

He led Marin around the perimeter of the orangutan cages, making sure they kept a two-foot distance from the cages. Some orangutans slept, or laid still, and some jumped around in their cages, banged the bars, and kiss-squeaked as Will and Marin passed. Some were occupied in cleaning their teeth with leaves, and some of the older females were grooming younger orangutans whom they had adopted (or, in some cases, who had adopted them).

“It seems wrong to keep them caged, but none of these orangutans are wild,” Will said. “They are all ex-captives, most of whom were living in much smaller cages—or worse—before they were rescued. It’s temporary, and it’s to avoid overexposure to humans. They are released back into the wild as soon as they are ready. They are taken out every one or two days to learn basic climbing and survival skills from other orangutans who are further along in the rehabilitation process.”

Marin nodded, studying each orangutan and cage they passed.

Will had used an anonymous passive voice, but he was the lead developer and administrator of the orangutans’ lessons. It was a strange and perverse thing, to teach another species how to be less like your own species and more like their own, and the O/URC had its share of critics, Marin’s former boss Ray Marcos among them. All the same, when you saw the ex-caps in the jungle, learning: nobody could say that it wasn’t right, nobody.

“Let’s go see if Gandau is home,” Will said, as they returned to the front of O.Q.

Will unlocked the door with his key.

“And would Gandau be an orangutan or person?”

“Gandau is a fifty-three-year-old Iban man. He is, however, known for his occasional supernatural communications with orangutans. My ex Petey would have hated Gandau,” Will said. They left O.Q., and Will locked the fence door behind them.

“He always hated people who have become the most outlandish parts of their personalities, which Gandau kind of is,” Will said. “But that was only because Petey didn’t have a personality.”

“Plus, with a name like Gandau, one would be disappointed without at least a little outlandishness,” she said.

Will laughed. “Seriously,” he said.

“So you like guys, huh?” Marin said. “I thought maybe you did, but you’re a little hard to read.”

“I’ve been out since high school,” Will said, “but I’m sort of, as in completely, back in the closet here. The whole sodomy punishable-by-caning thing ain’t exactly encouraging for raising one’s freak flag, you know?”

“Got it,” said Marin. “I’m glad you told me, but my lips are sealed.”

It was unexpectedly strange for Will to be standing at the threshold of the Iban elder’s bungalow next to someone who knew his orientation, and he felt a little giddy. So Will was grateful when Gandau’s first words when he opened his door were, “Too early for tuak?”

“It’s never too early for tuak,” Will said.

Gandau, a slim, brown-skinned Asian man with a thick head of dark-gray hair, was wearing a white polo shirt, cargo shorts, and cheap thong sandals. He laughed and shuffled to a table by the large path-facing window, where there was a tray outfitted with a half-full bottle of tuak (a sweet Borneo moonshine brewed from rice grain) as well as two stacks of small pink-and-white glazed Chinese teacups. He poured two teacups of the liquor and brought them to Will and Marin, and then went back to the table and poured himself a cup.

“Bottoms up,” Will said, and the three of them shot back their shots.

“So this is the Orang Amerika,” Gandau said.

Will introduced Marin to Gandau.

“Now, I think we are friends already, yes?” Gandau said to Marin. “You will love it here, Marin. The forest is rich with stories and life. The forest is life.”

“So I haven’t ventured into the Heart of Darkness?” Marin said.

“Light and dark can get confused out here sometimes,” Gandau said. “My people, the Iban people of Borneo, used to think that they could ask the spirits to protect them from confusion, from disease and death. Then they thought they could ask the government to protect them: send them money, get them into hospitals. After a couple years of asking the government, now they think they are better off with the spirits!”

Will and Marin laughed.

“No, let’s be serious,” Gandau said. “It is best to be independent. That is why the O/URC works so well. We are all independent souls by nature here, us and the orangutans, so we all understand each other. Don’t you think, Will?”

“I never thought about it like that,” Will said. “That’s very insightful. I guess that’s one thing that we all have in common. Although Marin is here to help us play better with other, less-independent-minded types.”

“It can’t hurt to have a few more friends in high places, I suppose,” Gandau said.

“Maybe I’ll be wanting to call on the spirits in a few months,” Marin said.

The door to Gandau’s bungalow was open, and there was a call from outside—“Will, are you in there?” It was Anwar.

Will stood up and went to the door.

“Yep, I’m still showing Marin around,” he said. “What’s up?”

“Wan is needing see you right now,” Anwar said. “He’s in office.”

“Is there something wrong?” Will said.

“Something about last week ex-cap release,” said Anwar.

Will gave Anwar the names of the remaining people that he’d planned to introduce Marin to and asked Anwar to also bring her to canteen for dinner at seven if he hadn’t finished with Wan yet.

Will jogged back to office, his brain a rattle of protestations and confusion. He couldn’t think of any issue that Wan could have had with the release.

Wan’s door was open. The veterinary assistant Dilip was sitting in one of the rattan armchairs in front of Wan’s desk with his hands in his lap.

“What’s up?” Will said. “Anwar said you had a question about last week’s release?”

“Do you remember Preity being released?” Wan asked. He didn’t sound angry.

Preity: a mild-mannered twelve-year-old ex-cap who had rehabilitated fully and who was expected to do well on her own in the wild. Had Will seen her that afternoon in the jungle? Held her up while she shook off the sedation? He couldn’t say for certain.

“I’m not sure,” Will said.

“Her vitals were logged before she was put in the crate in the morning, but her tag was not put in the bag and her vitals were not logged at release that afternoon. It is possible, likely even, someone on the release team took her.” Wan’s voice grew more and more contained as he spoke.

Will couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “That’s impossible. I mean, first of all, everyone on the team is trustworthy. Who would have done such a thing?”

“Jo-Jo,” Dilip said, closing his eyes in pain.

“But how? How could he or anyone else take an orangutan without one of us noticing?” Will said. “And why are we just figuring it out now?”

“That’s what I am asking you, Will,” Wan said.

Will sat down in the empty armchair next to Dilip.

“I messed up,” Will said.

“We don’t have any proof it was Jo-Jo,” said Wan. “However, at all future releases the team leaders must be more aware. I know how it gets. It isn’t easy. And we must have all the crates and tags accounted for before leaving the release site. I will make sure that Linda, Anwar, Gandau, and the other team leaders know to keep an eye on Jo-Jo, but I want to keep this quiet.”

“Of course,” said Will. “I’m so, so sorry. You’re absolutely right.”

Will asked to see the release records, and Wan gave them to him.

Will had meant to put them on his own desk and then go out and find Marin and finish her orientation, but he started reading the records in his office and couldn’t stop. He double- and triple-checked every notation, counted the tags, and went over and over the day’s events again in his head. It was just as Wan had said: Preity was there on the intake manifest, and nowhere to be found on the outbound one.

Two hours had passed when Will finally had had enough.

He went to canteen, which was in semi-shut-down mode already, with lights in half the dining area shut off and the leftover food set off to one end of the buffet, pastel-colored mesh tents placed over the plates to keep bugs away. Will served himself fried chicken and rice and wolfed it down cold in penitence.

Will washed his dishes and left canteen. He walked by Marin’s bungalow on his way home. Her lights were off.

Climbing the porch to his own bungalow, Will felt exhausted and world-weary, as if he was the one who’d arrived on a twenty-hour flight that afternoon. He passed out on his bed before changing or brushing his teeth and dreamt that the chorus of cicadas outside was an army of mail-clad soldiers out to get him for losing Preity.

The next morning, it was light out, and Will could think more clearly. His only mistake had been trusting Jo-Jo. And who could have known that Jo-Jo would have betrayed them?

Will showered in a daze, preoccupied with hatching crackpot plans for making Jo-Jo confess and bring Preity back. Will brushed his teeth (twice as long to make up for the previous night), and changed into clean clothes.

He walked over to Marin’s bungalow two doors down and knocked on the front door. There was no answer. Will knocked again just as Linda passed by and stopped.

“She’s at canteen,” she said.

Will came down off Marin’s porch. “Okay, cool,” he said. “I’ll look for her there.”

“What happened to your arm?” Linda asked.

Will looked down, and the scrape on his forearm, which had stung a little in the shower, was puffy and red and oozing a dark brown mucus.

“I scraped it yesterday during my hike, but it was fine,” Will said.

“Apparently not,” Linda said. “I have some stuff in office. I can stitch you.”

Will demurred once more, but Linda insisted.

They walked to office together in an awkward silence. Had Wan told her about Preity yet?

Linda rarely spent time in office, as most of her books and equipment were in med, but she did have a small private office there. In fact, her office was right next door to Will’s. They passed by the closed door with the small plastic green sign that said “Dr. William St. James” in white letters, which sometimes made Will think of his father. That Dr. William St. James would have not been happy with him for letting such a nasty infection fester.

Linda opened her office door and turned on the light. A stack of white plastic café stools stood by the door. By the window was a bookshelf filled with back issues of the Journal of Tropical Veterinary Medicine, some frayed textbooks, and two paperback copies of the C.S. Lewis novel The Screwtape Letters. A plastic potted plant in the corner badly needed dusting. The only other thing in the room was a large plastic cabinet on a table. Linda opened both doors to this cabinet now and ruffled through the bottles, tubes, and pallets on its shelves.

“Sit down, Will,” she said.

Will lifted the top stool by its sides, and the other stools came up with it, squeezed stuck into the top one. Will thrust forcefully downward once, and the bottom two stools both fell back to the floor with a loud thwack.

Will set his stool down in front of the bookshelf and sat down on it, studying the gross infection on his arm. It looked like an earthworm, dead and washed up in the rain.

“You know, you shouldn’t have been to see the baby ex-caps with an infected cut,” Linda said.

“It wasn’t infected yesterday, I swear,” said Will.

“You don’t think I understand, but I do.” Linda placed a small bottle of ethyl alcohol on the table.

Will thought that she was talking about Jo-Jo and Preity and was grateful that Linda didn’t blame him.

“She told Si-Chee at breakfast this morning that she doesn’t have a boyfriend,” Linda said.

It took Will a moment to realize that “she” was Marin. Will should have anticipated this. Of course this was what Linda thought! This was what they all thought, probably. He felt bad for Marin for being slotted so quickly by his ignorant coworkers into the role of his beard, but what could he do? Any insistence to the contrary would seem suspect.

Linda had found all of her supplies now, and she put on a pair of latex gloves, opened the bottle of alcohol, and wetted a piece of gauze with it.

“I worry about you and Wan and Dilip sometimes,” she said. “Out here, all alone with just apes and a bunch of crazy people all the time.”

She pressed the wet gauze to the top edge of Will’s wound and ran it down the length of the cut slowly. It felt to Will like she was cutting his arm open, but he wanted desperately for her not to know that it hurt.

Back Next