Quitang Province, Shu Island—Day 129

Still no sightings, but then I tell myself there’s still time. Jeremy says there’ll be no more grant money for this if we don’t get anything.

Even if it’s anything, it has to be amazing—an aberration in nature won’t cut it—“Maybe five years ago,” he said, referring to when I started the proposals to get myself to this island—but now, if it’s not a “damned near unicorn,” it doesn’t matter.

Which means… I still have time. Three weeks.

I have three weeks.

____

I might not need three wee

The Island (?)—Day 130?

I can’t be sure where I am, but I think I’ve lost a day. I woke to the early morning trilling of some variation of the starling, when the last thing I’d known was that it was time to climb down from my perch so I could get back to camp for dinner.

Well, that wasn’t the absolute last thing I knew… except perhaps with any certainty. Because there definitely was… something.

Right now, as far as I can tell, I’m still in a tree, but it’s not yesterday’s tree. Yesterday’s tree didn’t overlook a gorge spanned by a spindly little bring. Yesterday’s tree didn’t have a stand in it—I had just wedged myself in against the trunk amongst the branches where I could get a good view. Loret had spotted bark gnawed off the surrounding golden meranti, some of its saplings chewed down to nubs, and I was waiting for my unicorn, the rumored Dendraloceros goodfellowi, the horned marsupial climber.

None of the yesterday’s surrounding trees had anything like I woke up on. Wooden planks, as far as I can tell, cantilevering from these vast trunks and spiraling up and around—connecting to other trees, creating some sort of canopy web of viney ropes and wood.

I can feel vibrations through the wood I woke laying on—I think that’s what woke me. Pattering like strong raindrops, though it’s dry. Then, resolving into strong alternating hammer falls. Like footsteps.

Maybe it’s Loret or Flavio or Tina or Bedo. Maybe they’re up here to find me.

____

They weren’t. It wasn’t—

 

Day 130 still (I think)

I’m only writing now thanks to the expedient of having tucked my field notebook into the belt beneath my tunic.

I have been taken, it seems. It’s crazed, I’m crazed maybe, but I don’t think they’re human, who took me. They’re not Dendraloceros goodfellowi either, though, if I can get out of here, they may be my unicorn.

For posterity:

They’re taller on average than the tallest man—perhaps, at a glance, as much as 2.5 meters. But still, they are not as vast in any other direction—they are fittingly as lithe and strong as the vine-tied branches and bridges that seem to comprise their tribal center.

They have moved me from my previous open ledge to some place enclosed, and from the fine, smooth grain of the back wall, I feel it must be carved into the heart of one of these sequoial trunks—whether of the meranti family, I know not. I measure 170 cm and can lay stretched from outer tree ring toward the center and still not touch the back wall, arms outstretched.

My captors (but are they captors any more or less than I am an invader?) move bipedally when they do not scuttle on all fours like giant tailless salamanders. Their faces are as lengthened and narrow as the rest of them—and nearly affectless—almost featureless—my initial shock at their affect and movement was enough to make me impotent against them.

They appear to have hinged mandibles as we do, mouths, and nostrils—the lattermost at first glance I imagined as gills on either side of the mound one might recognize as a nose. But where there should be eyes—

Someone’s coming. I can feel it in the wood.

I’m going to ask after my team. I have heard nothing of or from them and am beginning to fear the worst—maybe for us all.

Day 131, Location Entirely Unknown

I have not heard any of my hosts utter a sound, but I feel they tried to interrogate me last night.

I was brought by a pair up and around the largest trunk in this web of trees—I think it was the center, the heart—where we joined a rather crowded branch as wide and flat as my entire apartment back home (650 ft2).

The more time I spend amongst my captors, the less I think they wish me harm. They are as curious of me as I them—take the interrogation. Interrogation, even, is too strong a word. But they set me back away from the trunk and formed a circle around me—this found me at my most terrified—as though to cut off any means of escape, as though to overpower me (It wouldn’t take much). Then, each in their turn stepped forward as though to address me—and I think they did address me, in their own way.

Above their gill-like nostrils, the top half of their heads—approximate size and shape of that of Homo sapiens sapiens—there are no eyes. Or there are a plethora of eyes. Sensors, anyway, like a knit cap of cilia that undulate like anemone and, in some seconds, seem to phosphoresce. As though, rather than communicate by sound, they communicate by light. Lacking the necessary accoutrements, the interrogation became more of a forum for mutual observation. I tried asking about the rest of my team, but if they understood or responded to such verbalizations, I cannot know.

They are unquestionably sentient but exhibit a certain degree of ecological naiveté, in that when I had calmed enough to let my fear subside, I made slowly to approach them—and they let me. They must have evolved here without higher predation to lack any evolutionary fear of it. And because I do not want to give them any reason to fear or fight me, when I approached I stopped short of just touching them. Instead, like one might to a strangers’ dog, I raised a gentle hand, palm up, their cilia eyes still dancing silent words at me, and, in a fascinating behavior of modeling, they returned the gesture in kind!

My hands and my arms are my cilia—I was too awestruck to see it then—but perhaps, in some crude way, I can begin to communicate with them. Find out where I am. Find out how to get back to my satellite computer so I can tell Jeremy I found his unicorn.

||||  |

Day 137, the TreeHeart or the TrunkHeart Clan

I have not been left alone long enough the past many days but to tally a day gone and tuck my notebook safely away again. It occurs to me that if I cannot read the language on their faces they shouldn’t be able to read the words on these pages—enough, perhaps, to keep them safe, but it is not a hypothesis I am willing to test. I have too much to lose.

Jeremy would shit bricks to know what I’ve seen. What I’ve done.

These beings—whom, through a series of mime and mistake, I’ve learned to call the TreeHeart—are eternally, and innocuously, curious and open. If it is ecological naiveté, it is not for a lack of high intelligence.

Around the same time they were trying to teach me their name—first by “saying” it with their cilia, then by gesturing at first the first forest then the branches then the tree trunks themselves—by resting a three-fingered hand against it and cilia-speaking their name again (a sort of radiating phosphorescence anti-clockwise with a simultaneous cilia wave clockwise)—I tried teaching them my own name. First, in the familiar gesture of our first meeting, I outstretched my arm; then, with my other hand I “patted” my forearm. Whether or not they have a word for “Pat,” they appear to understand, and now, whenever they speak with me, they call my name out, so to speak, with this gesture, at which point they are usually inviting me to join them in whatever they are about to do.

I get the feeling they are studying my understanding and intelligence as much as I am theirs.

So far—oh, there is so much to recall, and so much detail lost in a sea of new when I try to call back through the fog of memory—but, oh! What I have seen! What I have done!

I understand why the Dendraloceros goodfellowi of Shu Island is considered so ghost-like, so elusive to the people on the other side. Their home, it seems, is here, among these branches, in these tree tops, higher even than the TreeHeart.

“Other side”… I say Other Side, but I’m still no closer to knowing truly if I’m on the other side of anything, but to me now, it is as though I’ve woken up on the other side of reality where gravity still exists, trees are still green, the sun still shining, but the things in this place are as from a dream.

Trees big as skyscrapers—I still haven’t seen the forest floor; leaves as large as hammocks and put to use as such; tree trunk reservoirs that clean, collect, and store water, accessible by stile.

The TreeHeart themselves are fascinating—kindly omnivorous, eating only living things they can set in a trance with a highly nuanced cilia song before, expedient and humane (though the word “humane” doesn’t seem adequate to describe their kindness), they strike a single precise blow that renders their prey unalive but in every other way unchanged.

The TreeHeart are difficult to discern by age, though I have noted an array of cilia density on a large sampling of their community—a community that spans at least two hectares with an estimated population in the low quadruple digits.

A TreeHeart with fewer, less dense, less protuberant cilia I take to be younger. The more aged—or perhaps only the more practiced and well-spoken—TreeHeart have richly dense and expressive fields of cilia covering their faces—I’ve seen a rare few that have them running down and around their strong, spindle-thin necks. The TreeHeart seem to look to them, though even then they are sparse in their language.

They clearly understand social groupings—living in such vast and variegated ones themselves—but they do not seem able to speak to me of my own social group—my grad assistants, Tina and Treaux, my local guides, Flavio, Loret, and Bedo, or my harrumphing coordinator, Sol. I replicated their silhouettes—as well as my abilities allow—set up around a mock campfire to indicate our base camp. I did and gestured everything I could do and gesture, but no TreeHeart had a thing to say on the matter.

If I cannot find them, they will surely be unable to find me, and, if my tallying is correct, less than two weeks until the boat dock in Aldabra to mark our expedition as officially over.

The question then becomes, how quickly would the team leave me behind?

Without me, no one will know what truly amazing things exist in the world—I would change the face of evolutionary biology as we know it!

Beyond dining with them—they consume food and drink orally as I do, but their mouths seem to serve no other obvious purpose. Also, considering their relatively uniform size, I am left boggled to consider their means of reproduction, and I am less convinced than ever that cilia density can be a sure indicator of age—As for what I have done?

I have accompanied them on many outings—hunting, gathering—the sap of a particular tree is sweet straight from the wood—out, too, on what can only be considered strength and agility training sessions, for which they scuttle and swing, long-limbed with feline reflex and flexibility, while I’m left to teeter and run and grapple and nearly fall a dozen or more times.

We sit at night, in much the manner of my first night’s “interrogation,” circled, one TreeHeart in the center, spinning a story across its face in such beautiful spectacle—and because cilia covers every angle of their visage, we need not move  to see every whisper of their story—for that, I believe, is what it is. And that is what I believe they asked of me my first night with them—a story.

I am studying closely, their cilia songs, that I might soon be able to ask my way from this place.

Day… 146? 147?

I have done it. I have stood up in the center of story circle and spoken my first TreeHeart—with the flex of fingers and wrist, the bob and drop of elbows, hips, knees—my entire form took the place of cilia—and with studied directionality and sequence I think I managed to tell them of my search for the Dendraloceros goodfellowi (this was difficult, for to mime to my eyes would be about as useful as speaking with my voice), of my team, and of my current search for my team. It was all as a toddling child might’ve done—more clumsily still—but a flurry of phosphorescent waves around the circle made me think I made some sort of sense.

Then, the most miraculous thing—I had noticed what I had taken to be a cordial hand gesture between the TreeHeart: resting a hand on another’s shoulder—so that when one of the Elder TreeHeart approached me, open palm reaching for me, I assumed it was a mute show of kindness and understanding.

Mute it most certainly was not. I’m still all aflutter at the thought—the skin where we touch—its palm was cool, but not clammy as I’d expected—it still tingles with the electricity of the message.

It was not a message of words, and yet I understood its meaning. I think it must be draining, this connection, because it does not last long and I’ve seen it performed under limited circumstance—the hunt!—but the message itself was very clear.

I summarize, because, well, one must:

We knew you were searching, in the TreeTop, but we mistook that you were lost.

Your kind have always seemed too separate, alien even to themselves, that we often dare not approach you, but you, Single Heart, you seemed to be reaching out—not for your Dendraloceros goodfellowi alone—for something more.

We who took you thought we were saving you.

But “saving” felt like something bigger than saving—and I… felt like something bigger than myself.

The communication must have been simultaneously two-way, because they thought something to me I could never have seen coming, and it was so loud in its silence that my ears are still ringing with it:

You know what will happen if you tell Jeremy about us.

I need to rest, and I need to think.

____

It must be nearly midnight and a small party of TreeHeart has come to me—they are going to show me the way back. They are waiting outside for me to gather my things——

Port Aldabra, Shu Island—Day 150

This is the first private moment I’ve been able to steal since the TreeHeart led me out.

And wouldn’t you know it? It was the Other Side of sorts.

When we left my place in the trees, I expected to descend at last to the forest floor, but my guides led me across branch and bridge, far out of TreeHeart territory, where we came to a single trunk as big around as a modest city block. This tree alone, amongst its neighbors, was fitted with a spiraling path around the trunk—but it led hardly lower than where we stood. Instead, we began to ascend.

The TreeHeart were cilia-chattering in no way I could comprehend, so I focused on the climb, ever more curious, increasingly suspicious they led me not back to my team but on another outing to some sacred TreeHeart place.

I was increasingly wrong.

We reached the uppermost branches, where the densest foliage made passage laborious, but I still managed to spot a family of Dendraloceros goodfellowi through the thicket.

Just as I considered stopping my guides for an explanation, we emerged from the bramble into a clearing at the crux of all the branches. It was a smoothed, flat hollow nearly as large as the tree was round. A small pond sparkled at its center as it caught light from between the leaves. And, at the very heart of the pond, a small raft or platform, rope drawn up from every corner, combining to draw up and up and up and out of sight. At the water’s edge lay a few small canoes hewn from the sturdy leaves we used as hammocks, and we used them to cross to the platform.

On the platform, the TreeHeart looked unmistakably upward, the cilia from every side of the face dancing up, up, up. A tiny pinprick of brighter light than anything I’d seen centered overheard, and only when the trio of TreeHeart gripped a single viney rope and began to heave, breaking us from the water below, did I understand that the light was precisely our destination.

We emerged into sunlight so bright I hadn’t realized I had been lacking it these previous three weeks. Everything had been light enough around the TreeHeart that I could have never considered this truth: They live beneath us.

Their TreeTop is our earthen ground, at least beneath Shu Island, an arboreal canopy thick and dense enough to sustain the weight of a truly astonishing forest growth.

And as soon as we emerged from the undergrowth that obscured our point of entry, I recognized precisely where I was—not even far from base camp—where I had thought I would glimpse what would become the crowning glory of this expedition. I turned to my guides—and I remember this distinctly—who I could somehow feel watching me, while shielding themselves from the barrage of light, waiting.

They were vulnerable here, and they had shown me their vulnerability by providing such intimate knowledge as to the entry and exit of their domain. They were waiting, I think, for me to go back with them.

I did the only thing I could think to do. I laid a hand over my heart and reached my other hand for the nearest TreeHeart’s shoulder.

I will not tell Jeremy. I will not tell anyone. I will never forget, but I have to go back. I’m not lost anymore. I am not lost.

____

*Pat Wright was a real primatologist, who, in 1986, led a small expedition to Madagascar in search of the elusive greater bamboo lemur. She not only confirmed their existence, but found something completely new (not the TreeHeart)–Hapalemur aureus, the golden bamboo lemur. I’ve been reading about this and other fascinating biogeographical topics in David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo.
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