Saturday, October 14, 2006

Kayuputih Melaka, Bali, late 1990's

I wake in a humid sweat at the clamor of roosters, and my t-shirt clings to me. It already has holes from the tropical rot, but I barely know what clothes I wear. I go sit on the porch of this mountain house. The women are curving by with buckets and baskets floating on their heads, turning softly down the steps to the river. I notice the local mud-colored sarongs with intricate leaf and creature patterns that hide the dirt of the ricefield with rich beauty.

I wear the same shorts that I wore yesterday. They have a vague stink of sleep and sweat and garlic. I slowly stand up and insert my feet in a shared pair of red flip flops in front of the house. I walk around to the back, nodding at the neighbor who is hammering his roof with sinewy arms. He looks up and gives me a wide smile, as his body sways a bit in the breeze, firmly but lightly planted on the red tile roof.

Luh is feeding chopped-up cassava to the black pigs. She has already cooked today's rice and made fiery sambal from undis beans. She looks at my eyes puffy with sleep and my fuzzy hair sticking up, and guffaws.

Mandi, she laughs/commands, and I say ya, plodding to the outdoor bathhouse in the backyard made of bamboo sticks and rattan, and so I'm not alone Luh leaves the snuffling pigs and comes to pump a bucket of coldish water and splashes it on my chest as I scrub my body. The old t-shirt hangs on a pole. Luh points out how white my chest is, so funny, so cold in the heat of the morning.

After the bath Luh offers me coconut palm-sugar ricecakes, but I don't feel hungry, it's too hot.

"Kamu marah?" Luh asks, thinking I am angry because I stare into the red-dirt embankment across the way, and I have refused her food. Her hair is smooth and black and glossy and carefully brushed.

Last year I was sitting on this porch at dusk when a procession in silk brocade and Java batiks clanged by carrying a sacrificed cow. I had just gotten off the plane and I am always curious, but I wasn't. I was just here and there was a flash of quick-moving purples and greens, a clang of gongs, the tilt of carefully-arranged black hair, and a dead cow laced with pink and white and yellow flowers, borne at shoulder height on a rattan bier.

"Nggak," I answer, shaking my head.

I realize I don't know why the cow had been sacrificed, but surely for some auspicious event, because it is rare to slaughter a cow. Usually I see calves with eyes like deer being gently washed in terraced mountain streams by their child-minders who jump nimbly over the flooded ricefields from paddy-bank to paddy-bank. The child-minders lead the cows on the mountain paths through the village of Selat instead of reading, and their memories are of cows and the shadows falling on their golden flanks at dusk, of the secret streams with waterfalls splashing onto black lava stones, the almost-falling-in bridges of vine and bamboo that cross decades. One day they walk the foot-route to Singaraja that takes from morning until night, to city-sell their cows who quiver as they leave the red dirt and walk on unfamiliar asphalt.

Luh sits next to me on the porch, and the pathway in front of us is suddenly silent as the women scatter to the river and the market and the rice harvests, and down through the paddies to the unholy beach where they'll smile and sell fried sweet potato slices for 100 rupiah to Germans in bikinis.

Luh is looking through my hair and dividing it into parts and parts and finally finds a lice egg, which she crushes expertly between her fingertips. I never have lice except when I'm here, everyone in the village does, and I know they'll die on the plane home. My head is down, I'm resting my head on my hands, I cannot see a thing and my chest feels a rush of warmth. Then I feel a sharp pull as she takes a brush, without asking, and begins smoothing out the unruliness of my hair.

I don't ask why the cow died. I just offer my head to Luh. Without a word, I let her brush, and brush, and brush, and brush.