Hanging by a Branch
By Nora Guan
Riam Road Secondary School
I had flipped the ‘Open’ sign over that morning without expecting anyone to come in. It was a weekday, either a Wednesday or a Thursday. I remember because I was a one-man team that day since my co-worker never came in on those days.
The place had been open for about half a year. The hype of it had worn off long ago so we only had three, sometimes four, groups of people coming in each week. So there I was, feet on the counter with my magazine on my lap, trying to speed through my nine-hour shift.
He’d been there when I arrived to open up. I could feel his eyes on me as I unlocked the door at 10 in the morning. I paid him no heed, thinking he’d come in when he wanted to and it wasn’t my job to roll out a red carpet for him.
I eyed him over my magazine every once in a while. Being the paranoid person that I am, scenarios of an old man attempting to rob me zipped through my head. He looked capable of something like that. He had broad shoulders that seemed to bend inwards, as though the weight of the world rested on them and a frown set in his face, as if the other side of the world were tied to his brows.
The more rational part of me decided that he was waiting for someone. He was your run-of-the-mill pensioner. Nothing about him aside from his size stood out for me. Frankly, every man over 50 I knew owned a tweed cap and at least four pairs of khaki trousers.
He’d paced the entrance of the building for 15 minutes, causing the automatic doors to open and shut. I was almost peeved enough to go right up to him and tell him to scram but it was a hot day and I was in a comfortable position in my chair.
It was two phone calls and a half later when he finally stepped in, alone and maybe slightly irritated. My first thought had been that he probably just got stood up by whoever he was supposed to meet. He came up to where I was and mumbled something along the lines of ‘One ticket. So bloody expensive. Should be free.’ His voice was one of those soft, gravelly ones that you’d have to strain your ears to hear.
Most of the time, my co-worker Tristam, would be the guide whenever anyone came in but seeing as he hadn’t been there at the time, I took the duty upon myself. I flipped the sign over to ‘Closed’, knowing no one else would show up anyway before leading the man to the massive doors that led to the main attraction. “Welcome to the Last Rainforest.” I announced with a flourish.
In my six months working here, I had never seen anyone brought to tears the moment they stepped inside. I was panicking. What was I supposed to do? I had a 70-year-old man sobbing into his palm and I wasn’t trained for anything like that.
“Sir, are you alright? Did something in the air get in your eye?” I asked softly, slightly patting his shoulder. I honestly didn’t know what to do but the moment the words left my mouth, I felt like a deer in the headlights.
“Something in the air, you say? It’s all that bloody pollution. But no, dearie, it has absolutely nothing to do with the foul air we breathe every single day. How can you call this a rainforest?” he whimpered the last part out.
I was rendered speechless. Was he complimenting the structure of the holograms we had or was he downright insulting us as a pathetic excuse for a rainforest?
“Thank you?” I was too taken aback to say anything else.
He ignored me, moved a few steps forward, his face turned up, taking in every detail through watery eyes. “You’ve got one of those holographic machines, haven’t you? Tell me, dearie, have you ever seen a real rainforest before?” he said, without averting his gaze from whatever he’d been looking at.
I never really thought about never seeing a real rainforest. All of my friends had never seen one. Most rainforests had been destroyed in World War 3, about three quarters of the forests had been lumbered to produce weapons and artillery.
“Well, no. The public doesn’t have access to the Last Rainforest. It’s guarded. The government gave us this so we wouldn’t complain. It’s just about the same thing. The world’s coming to an end. I don’t think it’d matter even if I’ve seen one or not.”
I wasn’t thinking about what I had been saying, the words just slipped out but I truly meant them. We were stuck in a treaty that wouldn’t last long and sooner or later, we’d go back to war, go back to destroying each other.
He let out a deep chuckle. “You really think so? Dearie, if the world were to end, it would’ve ended a long time ago. I saw the last rainforest when I was a young man. What we have left are just remnants of it. Oh, you should’ve seen it.”
His eyes lit up as he continued. “Breathing was like nothing else. The air there was about as pure as it gets. Well, once you got through the smell of gunpowder, that is. I was one of the last people to see it at its full beauty. Then they built those barricades, claiming it would keep the rainforest safe. They ended up desecrating the place.”
He moved to sit down on a bench, hunched over with his elbows on his knees.
“My therapist told me not to come. Maybe I should’ve listened. Don’t lie to yourself, dearie, the world won’t end. It’s always been moving in a downward spiral, why would it stop now?” a dark smile was plastered on his face. Everyone I knew shared the belief that the world would end, inevitably. There was barely anything left to support human life anyway but I had to agree with this man. Humans always managed to survive, we’d adapt and we’d keep enduring this.
I took a seat beside him. “I planted a tree last year. At that new rainforest reserve they’re making. It was a Cork Oak. They grow to really big sizes, maybe even as big as you,” I said, watching a soft smile creep onto his face.
“About a thousand of us, one tree each. That’s one thousand trees. What was that saying associated with the first man on the moon? ‘One small seed for a man, one big oak for humanity’? Well, whatever, if anyone ever quotes that, I’ll be claiming ownership. So, I guess the world isn’t ending.”
He smiled, staring at the canopy above us. “No, it’s not. But we’re on our last rainforest.” He mumbled. “For now. We may not have a ton of rainforests but we’ve got time. We’ve always had time, heck, maybe by the time I’m your age, we’ll have covered half the Earth.”
He got up from the bench slowly, smiling at me before moving away from me. “By the time you’re my age? Let’s just hope your grandkids have the word ‘rainforest’ in their dictionaries. I had a great time, dearie, thank you very much. I’ll show myself out. Humanity’s hanging by a branch but you’re one of the people supporting the branch.”
This short story by Nora Guan from Riam Road Secondary School is the winning entry for the Malaysian Red Crescent (MRC) Miri Chapter’s Short Story Writing Competition held recently as part of its Environmental Awareness Programme involving secondary schools in Miri.
Participants were given three environmental themes to choose from and within the chosen theme to create a story that had a strong environmental message.
The three themes were: Living on Renewables, The Last Rainforest and Flash Floods in the City.
Daria Jeman Junsan from SMK Lopeng Tengah for her story took second place with ‘A New Hope’ while Eunice Siew Chia Kar Man from Riam Road Secondary School placed third for her story ‘The Last Man Standing’.
Six secondary schools in Miri participated this year. They were Riam Road Secondary School, SMK St. Joseph, SMK Taman Tunku, SMK Marudi, SMK Lopeng Tengah and SMK St. Columba.
Belle’s Bookshop sponsored the prizes in vouchers worth RM1,000 in total and have been supporting this MRC initiative from the beginning.