I woke up slowly, lying quiet for a while before opening my eyes. I tended towards homesickness in the mornings. It was the combination of the ozone smell and the rushing of wind in the leaves that made me imagine I was back there, near the sea. On bad days I would keep my eyes closed and convince myself, but this wasn’t a bad day, just a slow one. The atmosphere was thicker here. There was something almost viscous about it, making every movement strong and deliberate. It made you feel like you’d been lazy back on earth. Eyes still shut I smelled the ozone, and then the spice-laden scent of the steaming soil far below, the height of my hammock protecting me from the creeping damp. The ladder had long since disintegrated; I had no need for it. I pushed out an arm to touch the trunk beside me. It was still, as you would expect from something so huge, but if I stayed my hand for a while and listened carefully I could just feel the roar miles above in the distant tree top where leaves whipped ferociously back and forth, first in one direction and then, nine hours later, in the other. I had once climbed for a day to see above the trees, only to turn back defeated a mile from the top, at risk of being thrown off like a leaf. I had been bitterly disappointed; there is something about the close range of the forest that makes you long to stretch your eyes towards a distant view, no matter the risk.
With my eyes still closed, I could hear the squeaking and barking of the tree kangaroos looking for their breakfast. There were young with them, their little tails still straight. The elders had been trying to teach them to curl their tail tips around branches for stability but the juniors were too set on bouncing from one branch to the other. I and the kangaroos were friendly in a way. Sometimes we grazed together. There was a kind of reciprocity in our dealings; small trades, mutual understandings, sharing of the ripest fruits fruit and the plumpest insects and the fleshy leaves of vines.
Early on, settlers had tried to grow human food and it should have worked, it really should have, but there was something wrong; some deficiency in the soil; something lacking from the water; some spirit (they said later, when hunger segued into madness), that repelled us. Their attempts at explanation, looking back on them, were cringeworthy. They blamed the soil, they blamed the natives, they accused the authorities of eugenics, they refused the supplements because they were rumoured to be poisoned. So we scraped by, and then we stopped scraping by, and a whole colony died, and then those who came later learned to eat what was there. I came later. I liked my own company.
I stretched. Arms extended, toes pointed, back arched, yawn wide, tail flexing.
My eyes were open now. I writhed around, hammock swinging wildly. There was a tail hanging down below me. No, not hanging; moving. Swinging counter to my every lurch, as if it had an instinct for stability all of its own. I must be dreaming. Pinch yourself. Still a tail. Breathe. Still a tail. Swear and shout. Furry ears pricked up all up and down the great tree. There was a frightened scuffling, the explosion of a flock of birds taking flight. Still a tail.
You can’t panic while suspended in a rope construction a storey above ground. Panting, I pulled myself instead onto a branch. The tail threatened to unbalance me until I lifted it without thinking, and placed it precisely down on the wood behind. It pushed, muscular, into the slippery bark, and gripped like the rubber sole of a shoe. I panicked for a full moment while it held me safe, leaning casually. I had heard the legends, but I hadn’t believed them. Of course I hadn’t. I must be hallucinating. It was a nonsense. I had been driven mad by some poison the flowers exuded in the night. Perhaps, even now, I was on back on earth? The tail sat there patiently while I sobbed with fright. I collapsed eventually and held it in my lap, stroking the tip for comfort. It was very soft.
So I had gone native after all.
It was a long time before I looked up. Furry faces surrounded me, gazing quietly at my grief with bright black eyes. Even the young were still. A grandmother was the first to approach. Loping gently along the branch towards me she held out her paws, four red fingers and one opposable thumb on each. Like a human, I thought, not for the first time. I took her hand.