The Representatives of the Forest
by Safari Davis
Father, don’t worry about me. I’m safe, and I’ll come back before dark. I write. Please don’t come looking for me. Love, Keilir.
I step back to admire my work, and hope that he’ll be able to read the crooked Portuguese words scratched into the dirt. My little sister Katla might have to help him - he never took the time to fully learn Portuguese, despite my mother being Brazilian and having lived here for 6 years. I throw the stick I used off into the jungle and turn my flashlight on, setting off into the predawn light.
Before I get far, though, I hear a quiet voice behind me.
“Keilir? Where are you going?” Katla. I must have woken her up.
“Hey Katla. Don’t worry about me, ok? I’m just going for a walk. Tell Dad when he wakes up that I’ll be back soon.”
“Just a walk?” She inquires, her dark eyes peering right through my lie.
“Y-yeah.” I say, my voice breaking. I hate lying to my little sister.
She frowns, and comes and hugs me. This is a rare thing for her - she’s not much of a hugger.
“Be careful.” Every time Katla talks, she sounds wise beyond her 6 years, and it seems like she’s simply humoring your attempts at protecting her.
I chuckle a little and say, “Don’t worry, I have Santi to protect me.” I hold my wrist out, showing off the deadly eyelash viper wrapped around my wrist, whom I befriended after I saved her from being eaten by a laughing falcon. She hisses quietly, right on cue.
“Go back to sleep, Katla.” I whisper, nudging her back towards the tent.
I set off into the jungle, following a little stream that will connect to the Amazon River, where I’ll be able to reach Cacau Pirera, a small town right off of the Rio Negro. I’ll hopefully get there before 6 in the morning.
My entire life, I’ve always wanted to follow in my mom’s footsteps, but until a month ago, I had no idea how. Mom left many goals unaccomplished before she died, even though she bravely returned to Brazil to protest the deforestation here. She passed away only a couple of months after we had arrived from Iceland. We’d been staying in Canoas, a city on the coast where my parents had hoped to settle and grow connections. As an entomologist, Brazil was just as exciting for my father as it was for Mom, but he never liked the danger associated with the type of activism my mom was passionate about.
I’ve known for a while that I was meant to do something big, like Mom always dreamed of. Father would never want me to do anything like that, though.
Not long ago, I found a note my mom must have left for me in the back of a book she gave me just before she died, “Cities of the Amazon”. It’s the only thing I have to remember her by, so I’ve looked through it countless times.
It was only recently that I thought to wonder why the binding of it was so lumpy. I cut it open with my pocket knife and pulled out a slip of paper where the message was written.
The port. Find O.R.F.
(Cue ORF sign)
Mom could have meant any of the riverside ports of any of the Brazilian cities in the area, or maybe something different altogether.
I had my suspicions about which port my mom was referring to, but my mind was made up when we were walking along the river just outside Manaus, at the biggest, busiest port in the city, and I kept seeing stickers stuck on the hulls of boats and the wooden railings that read “Onde o Rio tem Foz,” Where the River has a Mouth. I’ve always loved solving puzzles, so it didn’t take me long to figure out that O, R, and F were capitalized, just like in Mom’s note. I kept my eye out for anything else related to the letters O.R.F, but everyone I asked around the port just gave me the side eye and patted me awkwardly on the shoulder.
It wasn’t until a few months later on a supply run in Manaus by myself that I noticed two young adults hustling past me. One had shoulder length bright red hair, and the other had a black mullet. They both wore identical brown hoodies that said, in muted green, “O. R. F.” I realized that the stickers I had seen were some kind of clue that O.R.F put out, whatever O.R.F was. I followed them and watched as they swung onto a particularly large cargo ship that was loading up and abruptly disappeared into an open shipping container. I crept up slowly and slipped onto the ship, spying on them through a grate in the side of the container.
“You’re sure you weren’t followed?” These words came from a severe looking woman, obviously the leader of the bunch. Her words addressed the pair in the O.R.F. hoodies. They shook their heads vigorously, eager to please, and the woman nodded in approval.
“Alright, everyone. We initiate Project Lorax tomorrow evening. This is the culmination of everything we’ve done thus far. Are you all prepared?” There must have been six or seven people in the container, counting the two I had followed, who seemed to be the youngest there, about 18 or 19. They all exchanged glances and nodded, nervous energy buzzing through the group.
“Carlos, remember - you’ll be in charge of the tractors and all the machines. Make sure they can never be used again.”
“Copy that,” a stout, hearty looking Brazilian man said, saluting.
“Luciana and Pedro, you have the spray paint?”
The two people I had followed earlier simultaneously held up spray paint cans, shaking them enthusiastically.
“Locked and loaded,” said the girl with brightly dyed red hair, Luciana.
“And lastly, Marcia and Luis will be freeing the cows after I disable the live wire,” the woman finished.
“Remember, we’re meeting at the hidden clearing to the left of the main water front in Cacau Pirera at six in the morning, and each group will take a separate boat to the rendezvous spot. Be ready, we have a big day tomorrow. After this, the government will have to see that things need to change.”
Carlos whooped, and joyously exclaimed, “They don’t call us Os Representantes da Floresta for nothing!” Luciana swatted him on the shoulder and retorted, “who is ‘they’? We’re the only ones who even know about us.” At that moment, my foot slipped from the box I was perched on, and I tumbled down onto the deck with a CLANG!
A voice that sounded like Marcia cried “What was that?”
“Let’s go check. Someone could be spying in on our meeting!” Pedro exclaimed.
I scrambled to my feet and ran like the wind, all the way to the Rio Negro Bridge, waving down a car and jumping in the back. A tall Brazilian man asked me, “Where are you going?”
“Cacau Pirera, please,” I responded.
I got out at Cacau Pirera, and even though the driver didn’t ask for it, I handed him a 5 reais banknote and ran the entire 10 kilometers along the river back to our camp. It wasn’t until I stumbled into our clearing, trying to catch my breath, that I realized that in my excitement I hadn’t remembered to get any actual supplies like I was supposed to. I felt terrible lying to my dad, but he was mostly just relieved to have me home.
“I’m exhausted, g-good night Dad,” I stammered. I needed to make my plan to sneak off before dawn the next morning.
I finally reach Cacau Pirera the following morning after leaving my father and sister a note back in our nomadic village.
I have to jump a few fences to get onto the dock. Once I’m on, I slowly edge forward, hiding behind crates. Four old motor boats are tied at the water’s edge, and the O.R.F teams are already starting up their engines. Just in time. Quietly, I leap into one of the boats, cringing when it rocks from my sudden arrival.
“What was that?” I hear a voice call out.
“Probably just the wind,” another voice says. “You’re always so paranoid.” I let out a sigh of relief when no one comes back to check. I nestle myself in between some fishing rope and the back bench of the boat, and pull an old tarp over me. As long as I don’t move, I’ll probably be fine. The motor roars to life, and we speed away.
An hour later, the boat abruptly hits dry land, and I barely manage to stay still. I wait until the voices recede into the distance, then gingerly peek out and jump off the boat. I follow them into the woods as fast as I can. All my years of playing hide and seek with Katla in the jungle have paid off. I’m swift on my feet.
I’m beginning to get tired of the narrow jungle path when the forest vanishes and we reach a vast open space. Millions of trees have been cut down, and the land is blackened. In their place, an electric fence stretches as far as I can see in all directions.
(Cue electric fence)
I hear shuffling feet and loud “MOO’s”.
“This must be an illegal cattle farm,” I accidentally whisper under my breath. My mom used to tell me all about them.
The others are waiting at the fence. The leader walks to a small box attached to the fence and opens it, picking up a large rock from the ground smashing the circuitry inside. I watch from the fringe of the trees, less than 10 yards away as sparks fly everywhere. Once the electric fence is disabled, everyone jumps over and splits up. I follow Marcia and Luis as they weave through the cows, catching sunlight on small mirrors that beam light in the direction of the other teams. I creep out from behind a particularly large cow, which startles me as it moos, and walk up to Luis, holding my hands up in peace.
“Luis, right? I’m Keilir. Give me a chance to explain.”
Luis does a double take. “Who are you, kid? You shouldn’t be here! How do you know my name?”
“I - I was at the Manaus port and saw the O.R.F. stickers, and I noticed Luciana and Pedro with the O.R.F. hoodies on. I followed them and spied on your meeting in the cargo container. Remember the sound you heard outside the container? That was me,” I explain, smiling sheepishly. “I want to help you guys. You might have known my mom. Her name was Valentina.” Luis stares at me in shock and reaches down to grab my wrist, but notices Santi. “Gah!” Luis exclaims, backing up. “Wha-what the heck!”
“Don’t worry,” I laugh. “This is Santi, an eyelash viper. I saved her, and we protect each other now.” I beckon for him to continue. “You were going to take me somewhere?”
He glances warily down at Santi again, and hurries in the direction of the leader.
She’s still standing outside of the fence, waiting for everyone to finish their jobs. When she sees me, she freezes, but relaxes when she sees Luis. “Silva, this is Valentina’s kid, Keilir!” Luis exclaims, shoving me forward. Surprise and hope flicker across the woman’s face before morphing into disbelief.
“She looks nothing like Valentina! Wrong skin color and everything.”
“I…guess I look more like my dad?” I say nervously, “and what about my skin?” Luis and Silva ignore me.
“How does she know Valentina’s name, then?” Luis asks.
“I don’t know! Maybe someone sent her to sabotage our mission!”
“Her? She looks like she’s nine or ten years old.” Pedro interjects, having walked over at Silva’s mirror signal.
I try to speak louder. “My mom wanted me to find you. She left me a note telling me how. Also, I’m twelve.” Everyone has astonished looks on their faces.
“Could it be true?” Marcia whispers.
“I know how to test it,” Luciana says. “What country was your mother originally from, kid?”
What kind of question is that? I wonder to myself. I stutter a little as I say “I-Iceland? We came from there when I was five.” Luciana’s face darkens. “Valentina was originally from Brazil.” I look at Silva as she begins to talk. “Her parents were small scale farmers - the legal kind - until an illegal cattle ranching corporation offered to buy their land. They tricked Valentina’s parents out of the money and disappeared. Her parents eventually scraped up enough money to send her somewhere else so she could start a new life - she was 17 at the time. A young, budding entomologist from Iceland happened to be staying at an inn near her house, and they connected. Valentina decided to move to Iceland with him, where they married and had you.
“We were such good friends during our childhoods. Before she left, she told me one day she would come back to protest deforestation here, and work to shut down all the illegal land-grabbers like this one. When she finally came back six years ago, she contacted me and we started this group. It wasn’t long before she disappeared, though.” She pauses at this. “If you truly are Valentina’s son, do you have any idea where she is?” Hope glints in her eyes, until I shake my head, and she turns cold again.
“She d-died giving birth to my little sister…” I say, tears welling up in my eyes. “Afterwards, we moved into the jungle and became nomads.”
“I see.” Grief flashes across Silva’s face, but it’s quickly covered by determination.
“This is our fourth big hit on farms all over the jungle. We’re out here trying to get recognition from the Brazilian government that all this needs to stop.” She gestures around her, at the emaciated cows and the ground covered in ash.
“We’d better vote on whether to let you stay,” Silva continues before I can say anything.
“All for Keilir staying!” Carlos shouts. Luis, Marcia, Carlos, and Luciana raise their hands, then Silva joins them. Pedro doesn't raise his hand. “All for Keilir leaving and pretending he never saw us?” Carlos asks. Pedro raises his hand, stubbornly refusing to make eye contact. “This group has enough members as it is. We can’t go around letting kids join it!”
Silva fixes him with her steely glare, forcing him to meet her eyes. “If I remember correctly, you yourself joined this group at age 12. What makes Keilir different?” Pedro attempts to hold her gaze for longer, but eventually gulps and lowers his hand.
“Alright, people! Enough talking.” Carlos says. “Let’s do this!”
Everyone repositions themselves. Silva holds up a mirror, catching the sunlight on it, like I had seen Marcia and Luis do. A signal; probably telling everyone to move. As Luis leads me over to the same gate as before, I notice words spray painted on the ground - Pedro and Luciana’s work - that say in all caps “DOWN WITH DEFORESTATION ''.
“You’re part of O.R.F now, kid,” Luis says when I turn back to him. “Are you sure that’s what you want? It can get pretty dangerous.” I can’t believe my ears. Finally, after all this time… “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.” I say confidently to Luis. “I’ve always wanted to be an activist like my mom. What they do to our forest isn’t right.”
Luis chuckles. “I feel the same way.” With that, he takes out a small mirror and hands it to me. “When you see the light from my mirror, catch the sun on it and signal back like this.” He goes through the motions with me. “After that, open this gate. Make sure you’re out of the way when the cows come through. They might be underfed, but that’ll only make them go faster for freedom.
“I’m counting on you, Keilir. We all are.” With that, Luis nods at me and sprints to where Marcia is positioned, vaulting over a couple of disgruntled cows in the process. I wait a few minutes, and the signal finally comes. I signal back with the mirror like Luis showed me and step towards the gate. My shoe squishes into something. “Oh no…” I mutter under my breath. My foot is completely submerged in the largest cow poop I’ve ever seen. I pull my foot out with a ‘SLURP’, kicking my sandal away and trying to clean it off in the weeds on the ground. Finally I make it to the fence, undo the latch, and swing it open. I jump up on the fence and swing away just in time. All at once, a stampede begins. A laugh leaves my mouth unbidden. What was left of the tractors laying around the field is quickly demolished by the thundering cattle. In the distance, I watch as Pedro whoops in delight and lets off a glowing firework into the overcast sky, lighting the day up a little more.
At that moment, I am positive I could do this forever. I feel more connected to my mother than ever, and I have another family now. Maybe, in time, Father will warm up to the idea, and I can introduce him to the O.R.F crew.
Let’s think about that later. I tell myself. Right now, it’s organized chaos time.
I get back to camp perfectly on schedule, around one o’clock in the afternoon. My dad is pacing back and forth, muttering worriedly to himself. “She’ll be back soon, right?” He says to no one in particular. “Should I call the police? What if someone kidnapped her? What if-” He finally turns and sees me. “Keilir! Where have you been? I was so worried! It isn’t like you to run o-” His words cut off as I tackle him with a hug.
“I love you too, Dad.” I say. My little sister Katla comes over, and suddenly it’s a group hug.
He chuckles quietly. “Where did that come from? And Katla, hugging? What’s going on?” He looks pointedly at me. “This doesn’t excuse your disappearance, though.”
“I can explain.” I look him straight in the eye. ”First, though, I want you to know I love life in the forest. I love walking to the creek every morning to get water. I love looking for wildlife with you and Katla. I love all of it. I guess…this is my way of saying thanks. I know it’s hard without Mom, but you’re doing great.”
“I agree! We shouldn’t ever move anywhere else!” Katla exclaims.
My dad scoops both of us up in a hug again. “Sounds good to me. Keilir, why is your foot covered in cow poop?”