Sweat, I was used to. At home you were constantly slicked in it. But this was different. I wiped my hands down my cashmere slacks, slowly, like I was ironing them. Feeling the sweat smear off and instantly be replaced. My perspiration had nothing to do with the humidity, here. Here, against the mindless white noise of the air conditioning, it was anxiety squeezing the life juices from my pores. I tried to keep my thoughts blank.
Through the floor to ceiling glass panels behind me, a grid of concrete columns stood caught in a glowing net of streets. The sky scrapers formed a different forest to the ones I was used to, but each building harboured as much life as the trees from home.
Yellow taxis plugged the sluggish streets. The interlacing streams of traffic were haunted by the memory of the bayou delta creeks of home. Home. Home was something I couldn't think about. It took everything I had, and them some, to stop memories of home possessing me too.
The auditorium wasn't hushed and echoing empty anymore; it was filling with a relentless, undammable trickle of audience folk. Lights flashed on and off, testing key lights, fill lights, backlighting. Sound engineers assessed levels. It had started. There was no stopping this now. I had to do it.
But I couldn't.
My feet remained glued to the floor, my eyes staring rabbit-like into the headlights of the cameras. All I could feel was a hole in my side, an emptiness, about the size and weight of a bowling ball. A little more. This little thought, the exact memory of his ghostly weight, broke my grip on my mind. I was helpless before the memories hitting me, each a busload of impact.
My little man, his little hands grasping onto my shirt, his eyes locked on mine.
His fingers walking to my plate to steal a pinch of rice. His silent smile so wide it crinkled his eyes when he was caught and reprimanded.
His hand palm to palm with mine in the moonlight as we rocked in the hammock on the verandah. I'd pull his hand from mine and trace the creases lining his palm, matching them up to mine. The moon, courted by a swarm of stars, would watch, smiling from above. Fireflies danced.
Here, the only stars were the million office windows staring baldly at me. The sky was an alien pink, a wall of smog cloud reflecting the city's light. It stretched from horizon to horizon, smothering any possibility of moon.
The alien sky, the artificial forest, the streams of cars, all hammered in the knowledge that my little man was a world away. The last time I had seen him, when I was rushing to catch the plane, bags half stuffed with last minute things for this hopelessly last minute attempt to woo investors, his little arms were reaching for me, desperate. I ran away, the sound of his cries following me down the river even over the cough of the engine.
He was never loud. He never cried. He was always a very quiet baby. My fingers stretched, searching, and clenched on nothing, slimy with damp.
I wasn't supposed to be here. I was supposed to be with him. One on one contact with the orphans, raising them naturally, that was what our whole organisation was about. And yet here I was, turning my back on my little man, abandoning him, causing him gods knows how much trauma, and on top of the original trauma of his abandonment – it was against everything we strived for.
My boss was supposed to do this, the schmoozing, the grant proposals, the investors, the cameras. But she'd argued with the show's producer, argued badly, and they were on the point of dropping the whole spot. Imminent disaster: ten minutes on such a popular show would bring in thousand in donations. Maybe tens of thousands. We needed that money. And now we'd lose it. Unless. Unless we could find a representative of our organisation that they would be happy with. And that turned out to be me.
Young, female, fresh faced, with the rigour of a degree but working in the field. A perfect solution. The media would lap me up. So they made the call, half way across the world, waking us up at 2am.
"Do this, or lose your job. All our jobs." Chris, our media adviser had said, sharp and blunt as a cliff face. "We need the money. You know how bad."
I'd looked into my little man's liquid eyes, like the pools in the rainforest after the monsoon. I was his world. I was all he knew, and all he wanted. My presence made the difference between stomach wringing fear and absolute contentment.
But what choice did I have? If I didn't go, not only him, but the whole program would go. There was no choice.
"I wish you could come with," I'd whispered into his gingery hair, rocking him back to sleep in the darkness. "I wish-"
But wishes were empty things without the wherewithal to back them up.
At dawn, I'd stared on the journey to New York.
Thirty four hours later, I was here. Feeling like the biggest traitor in the world. The biggest fraud. We are there for the orphans. Only I wasn't. I was so far from him our bond was stretched to snapping point. And I was about to be pinned under the spotlight.
I didn't hear them introduce me. I barely heard the polite applause that followed, but some part of me knew I had to get up. My feet took me to the microphone.
"Good afternoon, everyone. Salamat sore, as they say where I come from. Please excuse me if I'm a little hazy, I have in fact come direct from the jungles of Indonesia. Quite literally." Scattered laughter followed my words and fell like long awaited rain to my ears. They were human, this audience. They were mothers and fathers too. They would understand.
"I've come here to talk you about my little man, Carlos." The screen behind me glowed with an image of him at 6 months old, standing in a basin of bathwater, all woebegone eyes and hair sticking out everywhere. I couldn't look at it, or I knew I would cry. As it was, my eyes were swimming. I kept a strangle hold on my voice, forcing it to be firm, natural. "This was taken the day he came to our Orphan centre. He was an orphan, you see, because his mother had been shot." My voice shook despite my efforts, thinking of the trauma of that time. Carlos clinging to his mother as she died. Being ripped from her arms, taken from his home in the jungle to the city where cement suffocated all. Living in a crib with raw metal bars to cling to instead of a mother's warmth. Living in a room where his eyes recognised nothing, understood nothing.
I realised my pause had gone on too long, the photos scrolling behind me in uncomfortable silence. I hazarded a look back and Carlos' eyes met mine. Get a grip, you have to do this. For him. For all of them. My lungs filled with courage.
"His mother was shot, and he was taken to be sold into the exotic pet trade. Baby orang utans can bring 350$ to support a family living on the edge of poverty, and no end of people willing to buy."
I could feel the power of Carlos' liquid brown eyes working on them, soaking them up, sucking them into his world, and him into their hearts, just as he had done with me. Instinctively, mother to child. Pity the broader picture wasn't such an easy sell.
"It's relatively easy to pay 350$ and save one orang. To find people willing to be their mothers every minute for the next eight years."
My breath caught, but I ploughed on.
"What's hard is to find ways to conserve their natural rainforest habitat so they have a future beyond our life time." The screen alternated images of rainforest and slum. The forest growing in swamps so deep it looked it was growing on water. The light diffusing through the layers of canopy lit branches and lianas a dark, glowing green and left the rest in darkness. The slums filled with people aching to live, to get the best for their children, and surrounded by the wasteland of their lives. "What's hard about it, is reaching the ears of the people who can make a difference. You."
I could've reached out and grabbed a handful of silence, pulled on it some, felt it thick in my hands. In the audience, a hundred eyes were locked on me. In the world beyond, a hundred thousand more, connected by satellite feeds and broadcast signals and wi fi. Beyond that, I felt a trillion more. Damsel flies. Mudskippers. Honey wasps. Birds of paradise. Preying mantis. Leaf-tailed geckoes. Stinging gnats. Pangolins. Clouded leopards. Orang utans. Waiting. Trusting that the morrow would bring another chance at life. If we let it.
"I can hear you thinking that New York is a very long way away from this little local conflict. As sad as it may seem, it is but a local issue. You couldn't be more wrong." The slideshow paused on a picture of palm oil plantations stretching to infinity. The image was then obliterated under the masses of products using its palm oil: breakfast cereals, cookies, frozen desserts, noodles, chips, shampoos, all household names. A murmur of discomfort stirred the audience.
And as I spoke on, the emptiness inside me began to fill. Bit by bit, my heart unclenched. The importance, the necessity of my task today suffused my mind.
My fingers stretched and curled up. This time, I felt Carlos' tiny orange hand burrowing into mine, grasping me palm to palm, holding me tight. He hadn't left me. My heart could never let him go. Here, I was saving his life as surely as I was at home. But here, I was saving his future too.
The ghost orange hand squeezed mine, tight.
AN: for the April RG WCC: theme: 'Wilderness'. check it out (link on my profile) and vote for your fave! :D