Thursday, June 12, 2008

Cremation (Panji, 2008)

The village of Panji, which is Pasek's father's home village, will hold a group cremation on July 7th. When I was first there in 1990, the rice farmers of Panji still carried corpses to the cemetery gently in their bare calloused hands. The next year, they carefully wrapped their dead in batiks, placed them in the backs of Jeeps and drove them to be buried.

Three years ago Pasek's father died. With a sharpened bamboo stick, he fought the Dutch, and cut the umbilical cords of twelve children, five of whom lived. He would always pull up a rattan chair for me in the dusty courtyard and was always was the first to offer coffee and pink rice cakes. Even when he was still healthy and vibrant, he told me he wasn't scared to die.

The year he died, many fathers died. There wasn't enough money for a grand enough cremation, so the fathers were first put under the earth.

On July 7th, they will be dug up, a procession will begin to the beach, and a tall pyre spun wildly around and around by those bare calloused hands, confusing the bad spirits.

Pasek calls me, across the oceans, the day his father dies.

I sit on my steps in my West Berkeley neighborhood, the house across the street a pink Victorian rumored to still harbor women of ill repute. The neighborhood is changing though, architects moving in with their Ikea kitchens and bamboo floors. I fumble to give my baby a breast, to quiet him so I can be present on the phone. I am alone. Pasek is gone a continent away, and I have finally started a new life by creating one.

A car pulls up to the pink Victorian and a woman walks out and sways towards the driver. The architects who own my place have done a good job with the rock paths in the front garden and the upside-down shades that offer privacy but let light in. Suddenly I remember living across the bay in San Francisco with Pasek, and the day I came home to a bathroom sink filled with roses. I wonder what ever happened to our cockatiel Missy, who sat on Pasek's shoulder and loved to pluck grains of rice from his lips, who one day flew out our back door and soared towards the Oakland Hills.

I loosely hold the phone to my ear, but I am listening with my entire body. The rocks in the front yard become a blurry grey river. I stop seeing the pink Victorian. I only see Pasek and his father, Nyoman Mantra, among coconut palms, squatting low to the ground as they pit their roosters against each other, his glossy black hair on one side, his thick white swatch on the other, iridescent green and red cocks sparring in between. The first time we return to Bali from San Francisco, Pasek, the eldest son, takes his place next to his father, elbows akimbo, and they are there for hours, fingering wattles, stroking tail feathers, slightly swaying, barely using words.

In Bali, you are supposed to hold your tears to let a spirit leave peacefully.

He didn't.

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