The old woman sits in a barber chair, writing a letter to the Sultan of Yogyakarta.
It’s actually addressed to the brother of the Sultan, Prince XXX, she says to no one in particular.
She scribbles for a while, her pen squeakily eating the whiteness of the paper. The immaculate condition of the sheets is as incongruous with the chaotic barbershop as the woman herself.
It’s really hard not to notice her. Perhaps it’s the hook of the nose that gives her wedge-shaped face its disconcerting air. Perhaps it’s the beady eyes that glimmer with that dark fire that burns on the border of intelligence and lunacy. Or maybe her voice, an unforgettable falsetto, both grating and mellifluous, and a couple of octaves higher than you’d expect for such a tall woman.
It’s sad, pantomimes the lady who massages my feet. She has no money and no place to stay. She sleeps here at night, she continues, pointing towards the couch in the corner.
I already knew that about the old woman. She revealed her life to no one in particular, in indirect fragments, a collage in several languages assembled over multiple days. In the beginning, I thought she was a bit crazy and expected her rambling stories would fray at the edges and ultimately unravel. Instead, they wove a magical cocoon, as all good stories do.
Her name is Francine.
Like France, she says proudly. It turns out she was born in France, but it’s hard to say exactly when. People are guessing at her age but it’s not easy, and opinions vary. She’s at least in her seventies, but she could be as old as ninety, someone supposes. She does not look that old to me, but when I tally up the facts of her life, I get late eighties. Francine herself, as forthcoming as she is with other details of her life, is mute on this subject.
She became a medical doctor in France and discovered a fondness for the slightly wilder humans, the apes. So she moved to the U.S. and studied them at UCLA for 15 years. Her English bears out the claim, fluent American with a hard-to-place accent. She got bored with the academic life and wanted to experience the animals in the wild, so she moved to Indonesia, where she spent the last 40 years.
In the barbershop, she talks about the jungles of Sumatra and Borneo to an audience of mostly tourists. She switches easily between English, French, and Spanish, depending on who’s listening. And it seems there is always someone listening.
She talks about all the orangoutangs she raised as her own children. She talks about their desire to learn the language, to communicate better with humans. She claims one of her furry students learned to spell in English. The polite nodding in the room belies the undercurrent of skepticism, but then she makes sure everyone understands that orangoutangs are still animals of a wild nature albeit a sweet disposition, and the nodding becomes more genuine.
Her research station in Bukit Lawang burnt down a few years back.
Mysteriously, she adds for effect and sweeps the room with a meaningful look.
The government rebuilt the visitor center and the rehabilitation facilities, but not her research lab. Now she’s starting from scratch, fundraising, grabbing at straws, the same things she has had to do many times over these last 40 years.
It sounds like an uphill battle, and you’d think the old lady had enough and should retire somewhere nice and write a book about it all.
I have 10 books written already, she says. I need to look for a publisher, did not have the time to do that yet.
I choose to believe her.
Now I’m writing the Prince, she says to Andrew, would you have time to listen to what I’ve written and give me some feedback?
Andrew agrees and Francine reads her letter out loud. It is a surprisingly sober and precise request for Prince XXX of Yogyakarta to fund a tour of the local Ramayana ballet to a few neighboring cities. Francine reminds the Prince she had organized a similar tour a few years ago, to great acclaim. This will further the image of Yogyakarta as the cultural capital of Indonesia, she highlights the benefit.
When finished, she looks up.
I don’t think he’ll go for it, she says with worried eyes, but I have to try. If he says yes, it will give me more time to find other money.
Francine had a pension from France which has recently dried up. She's incensed about it, but everybody knows government generosity is in shrinking supply, so it's hard to share in the outrage. The owner of the barbershop does his best to help. He likes Francine and he’s been putting her up in the shop indefinitely. He sympathizes with her passion, but he also knows something which Francine simply must ignore.
Yeeees, he says. His English is good, but his “yes”s last longer than an arctic sunset. She wants to teach monkeys to read, he says scanning the attendance over his glasses, but in Indonesia, people don’t like that. Reading is for people, Monkeys should be in the forest, eating bananas.
Will Francine prevail? Will the Prince be moved by her request and put the Ramayana tour in the budget? Will the orangoutangs learn how to read, or will they continue to hang illiterately from trees?
Who knows… The real story for me is Francine’s determination, her unwillingness to relent, to give in to an easier and undoubtedly less interesting life. She forges ahead not for science, not for the betterment of the orangoutangs, nor for her own personal glory. She just cannot ignore the clear signs with which destiny has marked her path.