Monday, May 21, 2007

Fire (Bhuana Sari, Bali, 1991)

The coconut husk fire glowed not far from the mound where corncobs were tossed for the pigs and people went to squat. The smoke curled around the tin roof before trailing upwards toward the purple sky. A cow tossed her head near the front gate, clanging the metal bell around her neck.

Waiting for the rice to be done, we all sat in a circle on a rattan mat. Agus rested on his haunches like a Hindi Buddha, pointing at the chickens and following them with his eyes, and then began peeing on the mat to Putu's laughter. She ripped off a piece of banana leaf and used it to whisk the urine through the cracks in the rattan, and used a sarong to dry the spot.

Then Meme and Bapak were bringing many little bowls to the table, dark green swampgrass and sambal made of shrimp paste and chili, seared yellow corn, long beans with shallots, fried sardines from the paddy, and a great pot of sticky white rice. The brothers were there in t-shirts and sarongs and their wide bare feet, and the woman with pockmarks and red fingernails was a cousin and I don't remember her talking. We clumped great puffy handfuls of rice in our right hands, scooping them silently into the oily bowls until the rice was yellow from fresh turmeric root and speckled with red and green bits of chili peppers. Putu fed Agus fingerfuls of rice and beans, and the rest of stuffed our mouths until our scalps tingled from the chili, our fingers raw and burning.

The sun was setting over the dry gorge, and the cow swung her head and the bell clanged one more time. The night music from the far away seaside bars could be heard like a whisper, but the mosquitoes buzzed louder. The beach was far away, up here in the mountains, and as the light faded our world was outlined by the surrounding jungle, and its grunts and hoots and occasional fireflies. For a moment we all sat there with our heads bowed in the dark until Bapak, who with a sharpened bamboo stick had fought the Dutch, and then cut 12 umbilical cords, reached to light a kerosene lantern with a flaming branch.

"I'm not scared to die," was how he'd always start his story.