Sunday, October 23, 2005

Lovina, 1981

Pasek was seventeen when his father walked him down from the mountains to the beach. In their bamboo hut on an arid ridge, the beds were turned so the pillows faced towards the holy peaks, and the bottom of the mattress toward the sea, full of black magic, where people could hit their heads on the coral and never come up again. It was dry up in the mountains but the green bean and corn grew well and the pigs found enough to eat and chickens pecked in the dust until they unearthed grains.

Pasek walked down from the kubu in the mountains where the banana trees and the coffee bushes brushed against his face, walked down with his feet firmly planted on the trail between the rocks, his heels digging into the mud. He looked at the view across the gorge, then down to where the house with so many children was, past his cousin climbing a coconut tree, another cousin weeding the green beans, and the spring shooting up through the paddy. There was his aunt offering him a young coconut to drink, there the well where his mother would get her water to carry uphill, balancing a bucket on her head, there his grandmother's warung in the jungle where all the plastic-wrapped mung bean cakes were stale, but people still bought them so they could sit and talk to her. Further down were the cement houses with red tile roofs, closer to the beach.

Down the mountains he came, a boy, his hand in his father's. He and his bapak always tooks the back way to Singaraja, bringing the cattle to market. The back way was up the hills through the mud paths laced with geckos, past the village on the other side of the gorge, past the rice and the corn and the tangerines, up the hills and down the sides. It was always hot up in the hills but not as hot as in the town. He wanted to stay in school, but he was herding cows.

Today he ached to fight crickets, open the doors to their bamboo cylinders and pit them against each other, he wanted to fight crickets but it was time to bring the cows to market and at the end of the walk, the walk for ten kilometers with cows, the city-owner of the cows would sit down with him and his father and he'd have to sip tea and chat first about the cows but really he could smell the lemongrass and garlic from the next room and when Pak Tut's wife came out with bowls of steaming rice he was glad, and he sat with his hands folded in his lap but his eyes followed the rice, the little bowls of fried dried fish, the red mounds of sambal, his eyes followed the food until it was set down before him, and then he thought about nothing else until it was finished.

The journey was down the mountains, but this time he didn't go the side route -- this time he went straight down the mountains and across the main road to the beach. Mbok Made with her swatch of white hair wrapped into a bun was there, by the side of the road, wearing a pink eyelet kebaya, squatting in her brown and tan sarong from Solo. She balanced a tray of boiled orange sweet potato, papaya, and pineapple that she held out to tourists and the man with knobby knees selling mung bean and coconut porridge from his cart, to the boys on their bikes on the way to the beach. She was chewing a piece of sweet potato.

When she saw him walk by with his father, he who used to catch dragonflies near her house in Bhuana Sari, he who was practically a boy, she offered him a piece of papaya.

Here, Sek, she said to the boy with his neatly ironed shirt, his wide dusty feet. She held out the dripping orange papaya.

He looked hungrily at the fruit, his throat dry, and almost leaned forward. His chin lifted into the air and his jaw moved, but he didn't make a sound.

Take it.

No, thank you, he said, flushing, his hands firmly planted on his thighs.

Mbok Made waved the papaya under his nose.


His mouth watered. The sun shone brightly. He stared at the papaya, sliding a hand into his pocket, slowly drawing out a fifty-rupiah coin.

Mbok Made shook her head vigorously.

No, no!

The boy held out the coin, his slender arm firm, trembling slightly. When Mbok Made didn't reach for it, he looked at her, then tossed it into her tray. She tilted her head as if to tell him take it back, but he wouldn't, and only then took the papaya slice and brought it to his dry lips.

And he had taken his hand from his father's when he reached for the coin and there was the beach and when he turned around to look his father was gone, and there he was, shy and on the beach and not knowing where he'd go next. He wiped the papaya juice from his chin with the back of his hand and looked out at the Java Sea, the calm clear water, the purple peaks fading into the horizon, and the bare-chested young men in their sampans rowing tourists out to the reef.

And he was walking quickly on the hot black sand and then he was sailing out to the coral in his friend's sampan and the wind came and it was as if he were flying through the sea, he was flying over the sea, and at funerals the priest would say all life is an illusion, so don't be greedy, and there he was flying over the sea to a world where because people had airplanes they doubted there was a god.


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