Bird Watching


Ling shivered as she poured herself a cup of tea with a BOH tag still wound around the handle. She had gotten out of bed way too early. Morning light was creeping out from the back of the mountains into the cold grey. Mist filled her balcony.


Hours later at Dewan Puncak Arabella hilltop at 1440 metres on Tanah Rata, it was still misty. On the pretext of getting more tea at the back of the town hall, she exchanged glances with a flustered man in suit and tie.


“Boss. This is pretty intense,” she whispered.


“You don’t say. Stubborn buggers. They should call it quits or else they will face the music!” Ho’s eyes narrowed. The new managing director of the energy company hadn’t expected this situation.


Ling looked in his direction at the Orang Asli, or the indigenous people, of Cameron Highlands who had gathered at the meeting on a silent protest against a proposed dam. They feared that they would be dragged away from their home—the forest. The national energy company, with the backing of the Pahang state leaders, had announced that the construction of the new hydroelectric plant was to be sited within the Ulu Jelai and Bukit Jerut forest reserves.


Environmental activists had questioned the wisdom of building a dam within the protected nature areas that were rich in flora and fauna. The proposed 88-metre concrete dam was to be built on Sungai Bertam where the indigenous people fished, drank and washed. Part of the damming process would trap fresh water in an enclosure, creating the artificial Susu reservoir.


The locals were concerned with all the planned construction work above the ground, and under. River water would be diverted from Sungai Telom and Sungai Lemoi through transfer tunnels that would stretch as long as 15 kilometres to the dam. Underground chamber caverns would be built too—these were needed to store surges of water during heavy rainfalls. Otherwise, there’s a good chance for yet another dam disaster to occur.


Ling and her colleagues were aware of the horrific 2013 incident. During an exceptionally heavy monsoon rainfall that year end, the existing Sultan Abu Bakar Dam opened its sluice gates to release excess water. It was just after midnight and many villagers were asleep. A siren was triggered to warn people of potential danger but the men, women and children were fast asleep. The dam gates were opened gradually, inches by inches. More sirens sounded. A few sat up, jolted from their sleep, wondering if the siren heard was a false alarm. Some ran out of their homes. Within half an hour of the blaring sirens, the gates were completely opened to prevent the dam from bursting under the weight of the water.


Floodwater rushed down the valley, taking with it as many as 80 homes due to its sheer force. Some people were washed away by the gushing mud and debris as well. Many were hurt. A few died.


But that was just three years ago. The proposed new dam…




Cicadas screamed.


I must hide.


A gap! She mounted a few boulders to the right of the trail, leaving the path well taken and entering the dense forest. With her sleeved arms she warded off thorny branches, but they still penetrated through the cotton fibre to catch her skin. Head was kept low to avoid scratches. She trampled on an undergrowth of wild ferns and plants, crossed over a fallen log colonised by fungi. Up and up she went for some time grabbing branches for support as she climbed. Turning back she saw leaves stir where she had brushed past. She prayed they’d stop moving.


The cicadas stopped screaming, and the rustle of leaves moving was the only sound to be heard. With hands and feet she clambered up a steeper slope. Ohf! Ouch! Trees were tall around her. She grabbed a branch and a beetle buzzed in her grasp. Ugh! Releasing the bug, Ling felt a sob surfacing.


She had no idea how far she had climbed the forest edge as a new fear gripped her. She knew that the natives had a good sense of smell and were smart enough to trace her scent and her footsteps. The broken branches were proof of where she had been too.


What happened next? Read the rest of this short story when She Never Looks Quite Back by Mallika Naguran is out.