There was a house half-way 'round the world
And I was invited in for a small taste of gin
There was a hallway a thousand birds long
But the biggest one of all was in a
Cage too small
I asked the caretaker 'cause he was the Maker
Looked at me and laughed
Took another sip from his glass, he said
Open up your ears and heart
You put a big bird in a small cage
It'll sing you a song
That we all love to sing along
To the sound of the bird that mourns...
- Big Bird in a Small Cage, Patrick Watson
Brennan stared at the ceiling of her tent, watching water droplets pound it into a basin. It strained against the supports, forming a heavy pool of water that threatened to tear the seam straight down the middle. As the collection of rain reached its limit, small streams trickled off to the side, like the legs of long spiders reaching around the sides of the translucent tan and army green material.
Outside the sun was just beginning to rise, but thunder that shook the very ground she slept on had kept her awake for the past hour. A deep rumble, a flash of light outside of the tent that illuminated even the most dense Indonesian forest, and endless water. How could there be a water shortage on the planet with this much rain?
The jungle was alive constantly, even during the night, the whoops and cries of all form of nocturnal beings soon becoming white noise in the background as she worked over days, weeks, months. But in a storm like this, they fell silent, all of them. She felt isolated in the forest, the only living thing among trees that never seemed to stop. Abundance, was the essence of this forest. Abundant water, abundant trees, abundant loneliness. There was an excess of everything, and yet it also seemed, a scarcity of the most important things. Plumbing, for one. Medical supplies as well, air dropped and then retrieved from the canopy of meranti trees overhead in which they were tangled. And him.
In D.C. she had felt stifled. Bodies stacked up on all sides of her like walls, and it seemed all she could smell was a stale death—her own. Every day she felt she died a little more, and it became overwhelming, the feeling of loss, of claustrophobia. She was claustrophobic, trapped in a city that died, that she died in every day. On everything, a layer of filth, and she grew weary of trying to scrub it off in the shower every night. She could shut her eyes and stand beneath the shower stream, the sound of the flow pounding against her head, dull and constant, but nothing. She could not come clean; she could not scrub off the grime of her life there.
Out here, the jungle had refreshed her. The knee-high clay and mud was like a spa mask, purifying her skin and sloughing away the deadness. The rain washed her clean, and the dense humidity revitalized the dry, withered parts of her that had decayed in the city. Everything here was new—everything was alive. She was alive. She had a perpetual sunburn on her cheeks, she'd lost ten pounds in hard work and sweat, and she had to listen to Daisy babble incessantly every waking moment (that is, until a run-in with an angry Moluccan cockatoo who did not appreciate her endless chatter—since then she had learned to talk quietly to herself), but somehow it was the most fantastically alive she had felt in recent memory.
Except lately she had felt a nagging tug somewhere inside of her, mostly when she laid awake like this and watched the rain collect above her, or when she carefully unwrapped her rice from within the sago leaves (which she could not tolerate the texture of no matter how many times she ate them), or when she tried to express herself in botched Bahasa with the natives. She could not name or really even describe it, except to say that it was akin to the feeling of wanting to sleep in your own bed. She did not actually crave her bed, she had given up that desire months ago, but a similar feeling—the feeling of missing something that is yours, your comfort, and of being without a true place to rest.
Sometimes, when she was drifting back into a shoddy, interrupted sleep, the thunder would turn into his laugh. A low rumble, something she could feel through her. The earth would turn into a wall behind her back and she would lean into it, pea coat tucked tightly around her in defense against the bitter early-winter cold, steam from the coffee in hand warming her face. She would see him standing beside her, shoulder to shoulder, sipping from the disposable cup, and they would both start smiling again. It was infectious—he would say something stupid, and she would laugh. This would raise the deep, gentle thunder out of him, which would further fuel hers, until they were reduced to a couple of giggling idiots with no end in sight. Their laughter came out in puffs of white vapor, and the cold wind stung her face, but she was warm.
Then a crack of lightning would shake her violently into the present, rain pooling above her, hair sticking to her sweaty forehead, Daisy talking to herself in her sleep (in her sleep!) on the other side of the tent. And all the freedom and freshness of this life in the jungle had slowly, insidiously become too free. There was no comfort here, nowhere to rest, nothing to wrap her arms around. The easy calm that had previously caged her, that she had felt dead within, was now the only thing missing from her life, and the only thing she felt was worth having anymore.
It was unbelievable, the degree to which you could be absolutely blind to what you need until you no longer have it. It was like missing oxygen, or the beating of one's own heart—something so natural, so constant, so innate, that you cannot comprehend missing it until you begin to choke.
Her new freedom had become her enclosure, and the only place she had ever been truly, freely herself, was lost to her in the desert. The only place she could collapse into and breathe in, like cool sheets and the weight of comfort, she had vacated. But now she was vacant, and collapsing on that emptiness.
The top of the tent continued to sag, water catching the first weak rays of sunlight permeating the jungle. The ceiling, the walls, the whole jungle was closing in on her. The tent was too small, the forest was too small, the island was too small. This hemisphere was too small. The planet, too small. The only place big enough for her was him. In his embrace, in the space between his chest and arms, there was infinity, an infinity that could hold her.
She couldn't see it then but she could now, and she ached for it, the deep ache of a chest that could not breathe, of a heart that could not beat, because there is no room. Because when she was with him, she was infinite, and now nothing else was big enough.