Teku’s thin, teenaged body allows him to worm easily through the cavern’s winding tunnel, so it is Teuku who leads the team through the web of stone that makes up the entrance tunnel. His father and the pretty blonde scientist—Dr. Schweyer—and the two American men with her must contort their bodies to keep up behind him. The ceiling slopes down into a narrower tunnel; they must now crawl on their knees, probing the darkness blindly, searching for crags to grip, and pulling their bodies through the tiny space. Moments later, the tunnel opens wide, and they can stand and stretch and make arms of flashlight beams to move aside the darkness that hangs like drapery. Thick pistons of light thrust deep into the cave, and they begin their search.
The Americans are in Sumatra because Teuku put a video he took of an otter running into the cave on YouTube a year ago. Dr. Schweyer thinks it may be the hairy-nosed otter although everyone knows that creature has not existed on the island of Sumatra for a hundred years. And so she asked if Teuku might lead her and the scientists to the cave and help her see if the beast still lives. Teuku’s father insisted on accompanying, on account of Teuku being only thirteen. His father also warned the Americans that because the monsoon soon begins, they can only be away for fourteen days. Dr. Schweyer agreed to the conditions, and Teuku recalls the intensity of her grin, the way her face formed rounded lines like a frame to display her lips, and how Dr. Schweyer said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! This could change the world.” Teuku wonders now how an otter could change the world. What significance could a creature that is likely dead hold for the planet?
Their steps echo from both ahead and behind, a flutter of pitter-patters from their feet matting against hardened dirt and ragged stone. There is chatter, whispers amplified in the rocky tunnel, which Teuku absorbs eagerly and silently. They talk about their lives. It feels very much to Teuku like an odd topic of conversation for snaking through the cavern in the dark. They departed their lives at the cavern’s mouth, far back through the stretch of darkness, back at sunlight. Down here, they are empty. Still, the Americans converse lightly, and Teuku imagines their voices bouncing around above, on the surface of the world, ping-ponging off the round edges of the cave’s opening to someplace far away from this deep other-world inside a rocky face by the river.
Dr. Schweyer and her two colleagues do not look the way Teuku imagines scientists to look. On the TV, scientists wear white coats that fan out behind them like capes. However, she and the two men are dressed in T-shirts and shorts and hiking boots. The white man, Fred, is rounder than anyone Teuku has ever seen, and the black man, Lucas, is lanky and long-limbed, stretched to a giant’s height. He towers over Teuku’s father like a tree.
Teuku is hypnotized by the music of the cave, the way it accompanies human speech. A voice emerges small and then bounces off cavern walls, splits into a chorus that comes from all around, its vibration like warm electricity on the skin. It is a reverent hymn, and he follows every word like scripture.
“What’s strange,” says Dr. Schweyer, “is that otters aren’t cave dwellers. I can’t see a reason why one would run for this cave to begin with.”
“Maybe they’ve been forced down here by the deforestation,” suggests Fred.
“Is there food?” asks Dr. Schweyer.
Lucas bends down and picks a coiled shell from the ground. A bundle of prickly legs retracts into the spiral. “Hermit crabs. There’s definitely food.”
Teuku’s father announces, “Here,” as they step into a part of the cave where the walls have stretched apart. Slowly, he drags the beam of his flashlight across the cleared ground. Ancient bones stained orange and brown and black jut out from the floor.
“My God,” says Dr. Schweyer. “What the hell is living down here?” Many of the bones look broken and are scattered randomly. She aims her light into a depression in the cave floor. A rounded bone protrudes. “Is that what I think it is?”
Teuku does not know what she thinks it is, but he watches her carefully as she approaches it, kneels, and scoops away the mud around it. She starts laughing. Lucas and Fred laugh, too. Teuku takes a step closer to inspect her discovery. He sees that the bone is large and cone-shaped. There is a hole in it, a socket. And now Teuku sees. It is a skull submerged into the cavern, a single eye peeking out from the earth.
• • •
In the days that pass, Teuku learns that the cave drains the waters from the forest, that the rock and mud washed into the cave bury the bones and then harden over time into rock. Because of this, the skull may be perfectly whole, protected by layers of rock. Dr. Schweyer—who insists on being called Abbey now—is very excited. She says that the skull is recent, and if they can excavate it to see if the brow is round or flat, they can know if the hairy-nosed otter still lives—or at least, she said, if it lived more recently than they had thought. Other bones are excavated piecemeal over the next days. They are tagged like gifts. Colored tickets are tied to each fragment by string and arranged on a long table inside a tent. The Americans have pitched round tents for the team to sleep in and larger house-shaped tents to work in. Teuku must adjust to sleeping inside a cloth tube. It’s a restrictive thing, like a bandage. All wrapped up, Teuku has no freedom to move. When he wakes in the mornings, he springs out of his tent and opens up each of his many aching joints, spreading himself wide to the world.
Breakfast is prepared by Fred—always a couple slices of salami and a piece of bread. Teuku and his father split their share; it is too much in the morning for their stomachs. Abbey sits with Teuku for an hour or two before going into the cave. She wants to know stories of Sumatra. She asks, “How do you cope with all the rain? Does it make you sad, so many days without the sun?”
Teuku nods. “Yes. It can make all of us sad. It is difficult to eat. We subsist mostly on the durians the wind blows down from the trees. So it is dark and you are hungry and you are sad.” Now he smiles at her. “We have a saying here, that there is always a clear sky above the clouds.” He points a finger up at Mt. Kerinci and the way the spire pierces through the sheet of sky. “And so we know that the sun will always return and we can think of what it is like up high.”
• • •
Later, the team dives again into the cave. They follow a trail of extension cords that wind back to a gasoline-powered generator at the camp. There is light at the other end. Bright yellow bulbs stand on tripod towers. In the dig site clearing, it smells of mold. The rain water of the forest drains into here and lingers. The rocky walls glisten in the lamp glow. The acoustics of the cave produce the music of dripping water. The clearing has been mapped in a grid of twine.
Tomorrow, more Americans will arrive to help with the excavation. Teuku is told there is much digging to be done; he offers to help, but Abbey says that it is a precise digging—mathematical—and so he must watch her and learn for a few days first. After that, he is only permitted to soften the stone surrounding the skull. He is never to dig. Teuku’s father spends the days wandering the forest with Fred, who cannot dig because of his back. Together, they set up camera traps around the campsite in order to photograph any remaining otters. Teuku enjoys it inside, enjoys watching Abbey and Lucas sweat and labor in the dim light. Lucas makes smiling, flirtatious comments by the hour. He digs shirtless so that his browned skin sheens as much as the cavern walls in the electric light. He peeks at Abbey, trying to catch the eye that she never passes his way. Her attention is always downward, at the earth that has swallowed the otter’s skull. She devotes herself to breaking apart the mineralized ground. Teuku imagines her searching, always searching. Lately, he dreams of Abbey digging into his mind. He cannot explain why, but it feels as if poisoned flowers have bloomed inside him when he thinks of her.
READ THE REST OF THIS STORY IN VOL 49.1
AN TRAN’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, Sundog Lit, Sententia: The Journal, and The Good Men Project, among others. He has received a Notable distinction from The Best American Essays series, as well as nomination for The Pushcart Prize. He serves as a Prose Editor for Big Lucks and received his M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.