I Brought You Back an Armadillo

by Sue Hann

Out of all of the animals, I choose the armadillo. An odd choice for a baby perhaps but its colouring draws me to it—egg-yolk yellow ears, a burnt orange shell, and a green striped tail. There is an audacious cheeriness to this strange little toy. The interior of the shop is a cool and dark respite from the frenetic streets of Colombo. The English winter seems impossible to imagine in this sweaty, weighty heat. I slip off one sandal and rest a bare foot on the tiles, savouring the delicious chill as I survey the rest of the wares: bolts of patterned fabric, kurta pyjamas, and handwoven rugs in riotous colours. I want them all, plus the tea towels, the table cloths, the cushions in peacock blues, lime greens and baby pinks. I imagine these items dotted around our flat, transforming it into an Aladdin’s cave of technicolour treasure, but in the end the choice is overwhelming, so I settle on just the armadillo.

It definitely isn’t the cutest toy. It is more armadillo by Picasso than by Mother Nature. He is slightly incongruous, too—there are no armadillos in Sri Lanka. He is far from home and out of step in this menagerie of stuffed cotton animals: monkeys tumbling over dolphins, snakes slithering around leopards, fish swimming between elephants. I know how you feel, Mr. Armadillo, I think.

I tell my husband that it is a gift for the receptionist at work who is expecting her first baby. A token gift, a frivolity, to complement the sensible Mothercare vouchers purchased after the office whip round. It would be odd if I came home with the plush two-foot snake, a bit over-the-top in the gift stakes. No, this pocket sized toy is perfect.

What I can’t quite say to my husband, or to myself: that it is you I am thinking of as I take the armadillo from the shelf. This time last week, I was sitting in the clinic waiting room, staring blankly at the TV forever tuned to Homes under the Hammer.  Around me, couples slunk down low in the bucket seats. In a fertility clinic, no one wants to be seen, but everyone wants to look. We sized each other up—who looked older, younger, fatter, thinner—like farmers at a cattle mart. I weighed their chances against my own as if there were      a limited number of prizes that only the most deserving win. After another failed cycle, we booked this trip at the last minute, a much-needed escape. Travel warnings funnelled us back to our honeymoon destination—Sri Lanka—the only Zika-free bastion left in much of Asia.

The armadillo is 650 rupees—I still have a fat roll of currency left over from our trip five years ago—small faded paper notes in denominations that make me feel rich: 50 rupees, 100 rupees, 1000 rupees. As I pay for the gift, the pointed snout of the armadillo peeping out at me from the bag, the quietest voice in my head thinks about how I will tell you where it came from, the traveling we did when we dreamed about you; how your father, keen to manage my wanderlust, kept reminding me that this might be our last long trip, that our future lives would be short haul breaks, laden with buggies, nappy bags, and all your happy paraphernalia.

“Sri Lanka! I’m so jealous of you two, able to go to all these exotic places,” our friends said over lunch, on an endlessly grey November day. “Wait ‘til you have kids—you can’t even go to the loo in peace!” Through the baby monitor on the sideboard, I could hear the muffled snuffles of their youngest child as he napped. The “wait until” was a punch to the guts; the presumed inevitability of it, the easy assumption that it was on the horizon—it used to wind me, but I have learned to steel myself before all conversations involving babies or parenting. I kept my smile in place and agreed, weren’t we lucky?

After a few days in Colombo, we take the train running down the west coast to Matara.

At each station stop, men with baskets of mysterious snacks under their arms walk briskly through the carriages calling their one-word refrain: “wadiwadiwadiwadi.” Hungry, and curious, I gesture for one, with no idea of what it is. The vendor fills a paper pouch with a handful of crispy balls and hands it to me. They are crunchy and salty in my mouth, these deep-fried lentil fritters. The pouch is roughly fashioned from pages ripped from a child’s exercise book. The student has very neat penmanship and I twist the paper this way and that, trying to make out the English sentences. The imprint of children is everywhere, even in the snacks.

Darkness comes quickly so close to the equator and evenings are short. We watch from the crammed train carriage as the eye-squinting light of day turns into an ice-cream sunset, all the more precious in its brevity. At points, the train tracks run mere feet from the sea, providing front row seats as the flaming sun sinks heavily into the water and light is extinguished for another day. I hold my husband’s clammy hand and contemplate our possible future, the one where you are not, and where we are still just two. Unwelcome thoughts circle through my mind with the rhythm of the train: is this enough, will this be enough?

We nearly miss our stop, the station signs difficult to read in the inky darkness. We join the disembarking throng: men clutch leather satchels, and women gracefully hold their long skirts together as they climb down from the train and disappear into the night. We hobble off, bearing an extravagance of luggage, tumbling onto the teeming platform. Thankfully, our driver is waiting for us. We have a destination and a plan: from the southern tip of the island, we will travel inland to visit the Sinharaja’s tropical lowland rainforest. 

Ratheesh, our driver, addresses only my husband in the rearview mirror, the road a cursory distraction. Lorries thunder past, endlessly communicating with the traffic in ear-splitting klaxons. “First time in Sri Lanka?” He is proudly delighted when we say no. “How many children?” Ratheesh is confused when my husband says none. “At home, no children?” he asks, making sure. He lapses into silence when we reiterate the negative, unsure what to make of us perhaps, uncertain what to say. “Soon,” he says finally, “soon.” Whether this is instruction or incantation, I do not know.

The directness is a relief in some ways. For the past few years, a particular kind of parlour game has been played out among a certain group of friends. “I see Nicole isn’t drinking tonight,” observes Queen Bee, Nicole safely out of earshot. “She wasn’t drinking when we all met last month either,” observes Worker Bee. Raised eyebrows and knowing looks finish the conversation. This kind of forensic examination has become the background hum to social gatherings. A mental ledger is kept of who is ahead, who is behind, the meaning of which is ever-shifting. The margins are tight: too far ahead is not enviable. “She had her first very young, didn’t she?” The scrutiny is packaged under the guise of casual chit chat. There is a bit of Lady Macbeth in us all—Look like the flower, but be the serpent underneath.

From the back seat of the car, I play distractedly with the armadillo in my travel bag, running my hand over its scaly back. A little tag on the toy tells me that the armadillo is native to South America, and takes its name from “little armoured one” in Spanish; the animal rolls into a ball when feeling threatened, to better shield its exposed underbelly, a useful defensive response.

“Now this is what I want,” my mother said, looking at me meaningfully, cradling my cousin’s baby, smelling his head and getting high on the fumes. My cousin was visiting us in London with her two children. My mother gripped the baby tighter, swaddling him into her woollen cardigan. I reminded myself that she didn’t know, and kept my face impassive, any urge to ever tell her extinguished forever. I resented her wanting even as I burned with my own.

The baby recoiled, throwing his body backward in that arching way, as if sensing the grasping need of this stranger, and he held his arms out for his own mother. “I want to be a dog when I grow up,” the baby’s older sister chipped in from somewhere below the conversational airspace. “With floppy ears. But I won’t eat dog food.” “You can be anything you want when you grow up, darling!” my mother said to her indulgently, smiling at my cousin. She had told me the same when I was a child. It was only as an adult that I came to understand the unspoken addendum—as long as you are also a mother.

We spend a few days reading, resting and lounging around our guest house. I drink pots of tea and read frothy fiction. I have abandoned two books already—recommendations from our guide book on the country’s history of bloody conflict. I have sadness enough and no room for more. The tea is straight from the plantations in the hill country to the north. It feels strangely transgressive drinking pots and pots of this aromatic black brew, having avoided caffeine for so long. It was one of the many pieces of “lifestyle advice” I had dutifully followed in quiet desperation. There is a pleasure at first in this abandoning of rules, but it leaves a thin aftertaste on my lips.

By the end of the week, a group has been assembled for our rainforest trip. Pali, our guide and naturalist, bubbles with enthusiasm as we set out in the cool and damp of the early morning, drifts of spectral mist still sitting amongst the rolling terrain. No one in our small group speaks, as we walk in single file while around us Nature, an early riser, is in full frenetic activity.  

I never paid much attention to birds before I came to Sri Lanka. I always considered bird watching a bit geeky, a bit trainspotter-ish. But the birds of Sri Lanka defy me not to be dazzled by them. The Blue Magpie looks like a child’s crayon drawing—the beak, feet, and eyes picked out in cherry red, and the belly, upper body and tail in shades of royal blue and turquoise. They are bold flashes of colour against the green of the forest canopy. My mother used to correct me for colouring things in using unrealistic shades. All around me, Nature makes a playful mockery of rules.

Pali knows all the bird calls, and directs us to point our binoculars up high to spot a grey hornbill, a large bird with curving yellow beak, tucked into the trees, hidden among the foliage, and then later, a green billed coucal—the paleness of its beak contrasting with its brown and black suit. Lines from an Emily Dickinson poem—Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul—have been my meagre sustenance at hopeless points through the past year. I have murmured them to myself like a mantra, over and over.

Hope, I have learned, is a finite resource and we have burned through much of our supply. Somewhere over the past months, we have stopped talking about you. We used to talk about you all the time, what you would be like, who you might take after. We hoped you would get your hair from me (your father is bald, so you’ll thank me for that one) and your father’s sunny disposition. Your father even bought a parenting book—he likes to be prepared. I recently noticed that it has moved from his nightstand, an observation that remains unspoken. Now I mostly talk to you silently, in the privacy of my own head.

Although some of our little group are fixated on seeing leopards and wild elephants, Pali is an equal-opportunities guide and has just as much enthusiasm for a type of moss as an insect as a bird. He crouches down in the dirt to show us a millipede, a stick of shiny black liquorice with white tassels for legs. Moments later, he stops us from walking through an elaborate web strung across our path, a spider at the centre, its span as big as a man’s hand. “Bunny spider,” Pali tells us, unfazed, pointing at the monster. “See the face?” The markings on the back of the creature form a reasonable approximation of a rabbit. From hell. The group queue up to photograph their hands behind the web to demonstrate the scale.

We trek on, trousers tucked into socks to protect us from the leeches—a precaution Pali seems to find very amusing. He carries only a small plastic tub of salt to kill any leeches he finds on his body. Protection enough. He veers off the path to show us a chameleon on a low branch of a tree. “Traffic light chameleon,” he says, pointing, “Changes colour when it senses danger.” The bulbous-headed creature returns my stare with one eye, while the other roves independently in the other direction, already bored with me.

I repeat the new words and facts to myself, trying to make them stick, but I can feel some of them slide off my brain. Around us life unfurls in abundance, pushing up out of the dark, reaching for the light. Ferns carpet the forest floor, the young ones coiled up tight, ready to unfurl into leafy fronds. They are embryo-like, curled and whorled. I think of all the ferns I have never managed to keep alive in my tiny bathroom. They invariably ended their brief life in the brown bin, ready for compost collection on a Monday morning.

Trees straight as pins push up to lofty heights—30, 40 metres. Woody vines drape themselves around the trees, piggybacking up to the higher reaches of the forest canopy to sunlight. Flame-coloured flowers dot the earth here and there like jewels. Bamboo orchids, roots tenaciously anchoring onto branches of trees, reach their shoots towards the light, blooming in riotous profusion, their delicate blowsy trumpets purple, cerise, white. I am accustomed to seeing orchids in plastic pots in the plant section in IKEA and always wondered why they came potted in wood chips instead of soil. Now I know.

Mushrooms of various shapes, colour and size sprout from cranny and crevice of fallen logs. Life is everywhere, insistent.  The Enchanted Forest and The Magic Faraway Tree were my favourite childhood reads, and I can’t help thinking that these flat-topped mushrooms would be the perfect perches for Silky, Moonface and Saucepan Man—the forest fairies of the Enid Blyton books. I couldn’t resist buying you an illustrated hardback edition from a children’s bookshop back home, delighting in the coloured drawings. A premature purchase, I know. It was some time ago now.

Towards the end of the trek, there is a suspension bridge over the river, wide enough only for single file. Narrow slats of timber underfoot are buttressed by rusty red uprights which are linked by slender lengths of metal cable, insubstantial-looking in the still-blinding sunlight. Ahead, two children shriek with delight at the shaky uncertainty. I hesitate— I don’t like heights. It’s a primitive kind of fear: any time I am confronted with heights I have to fight the urge to crouch down low to solid ground. With a suspension bridge, crouching won’t do me any good. I think of all the people who have crossed before me, who have trusted the bridge to bear their load. Tentatively, I tread one foot in front of the other, as the brown river runs lazily beneath us. The cable feels puny beneath my clutch. I stop halfway across, equidistant between the bank behind and the bank in front, suspended—somewhere and nowhere. I can’t stay here. I keep my eyes up, focus on what’s ahead and don’t look down.

Leaving the rainforest, I am sweaty and thirsty, my face hot and tight from too much sun. We walk in a weary, spent silence, heavy-legged but full-hearted, to the tarmac road where the jeep is waiting. “After a shower, I will feel like a new man” says Pali, chuckling to himself. Cool, running water and fresh, light clothes—I can almost feel the delight. I dream, too, of the feast we will eat tonight—rice and curry, the scent heavy with coconut oil and curry leaves, followed by thick slices of sweet pineapple. We pass pineapple plants growing in spiky splendour, each plant yielding just one perfect pineapple, the fruit on the central stalk protected by a circle of long sword-like leaves. I am startled to see them sprouting from the ground, having always assumed they grew on trees.

Sri Lanka has offered up all her many delights, drenching me with her bounty and I feel changed: replete, rewritten. A line from a Mary Oliver poem comes to mind: I was a bride married to amazement.

The following week, back in the trenchant grey of London, I find myself wide awake in the early hours of the morning, my body reluctant to leave Sri Lankan time. On the flight home, women in saris and thick woollen cardigans and men with socks under sandals slept as we left the teardrop-shaped island behind and crossed the Arabian Sea. I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I watched the icon of our plane inch across the map on the tiny screen in front of me, travelling west, back, back to regular life with its unknown destination.

The flat is chilly as I unpack my case while my husband and the rest of the city sleeps. Amidst dirty laundry, mosquito repellent, and half-empty tubes of sunscreen, the armadillo pokes its nose out at me from the detritus. I pick him up carefully, knowing—admitting, now—that it’s for you, though to say it out loud is still too raw, too exposing, too foolish-sounding. My eyes still gritty from lack of sleep, I give the armadillo a new home atop the medication box with its pills, syringes, pessaries. In the half light, he is a bright burst of colour, a guardian of our hope.