Pulling Shadows

Pulling Shadows

Reprinted from Fiction International, issue #38. Winner of PEN/Nob Hill prize for best novel excerpt.

“Keep your legs closed!” the midwife yelled at Ibu.  “Don’t you let that baby out!”

But Ibu couldn’t hear the midwife cursing her, threatening to keep the gate closed if Ibu didn’t listen.  She was beside herself with pain.  The women had not given her any painkillers so that her will would be strong, so she would keep the presence of mind to hold the baby in one more day.

The battle was hopeless.  They had tried everything to prevent Ibu from giving birth that day: all morning they’d fed her very young pineapple, bitter pineapple the size of a fist, pineapple after pineapple until she was ready to burst, until it became an almost abortive dose despite the ripeness of the baby.  Then they went past that threshold, letting the wind choose the lesser evil.  All in vain.

To the Balinese village, Ibu was stubborn or weak or just plain mischievous, and refused to wait even one day.  But the midwife was a practical woman, and there was no way to put the baby back in.  So she pulled the wiggling purple thing out.  She held the baby up for examination, and saw that maybe it was not her younger sister who was the troublemaker, but this new little person.  At any rate, had Saudari not been Ibu’s sister, she would have had no part in this mess.

It did not occur to her that maybe the fault was neither Ibu’s, nor the little baby’s, but that of the baby’s four siblings who were coming out of Ibu one after the other.  Mostly, the impatience was the fault of the placenta.  The amniotic fluid opened the door, the blood and vernix helped on either side, but the placenta pushed from the rear.  The placenta always comes last; it is the youngest, and it pushes.

All four siblings are powerful and should be treated with respect.  Everyone knew this, but Saudari was tired and puffy-headed, and that made her thoughtless.  She was fat, squat, with a faint tinge of red, like the rind of snakeskin fruit.  She had once been the beautiful woman of the family compound ― every compound had one ― but she’d never married.  Now she retained water between her bones and skin, between her still long hair and her skull filled with half-frightened thoughts.  She pushed her thoughts back, cut the umbilical cord with an expert snap, tied the knot, washed the baby and disposed of the amniotic fluid, blood and yellow milky salve.  She did all this very quickly, placed the baby next to Ibu and gave her attention to the youngest and most important sibling.  It was the colour of a chicken’s stomach.

She washed the placenta in thin yellow turmeric paste, wrapped it in a clean white cotton cloth, tied the whole bundle together with fibrous black string made from sugar palm using auspicious knots of significance, and gently placed the package in a yellow coconut into which ongkara and ahkara symbols had been carved in the appropriate locations.  As she did all this, a thick press of women followed her, whispered advice about the knots and gossiped already about whether or not Saudari should have tried harder to impede the exit of the baby and thus risk the wrath of the placenta or whether she should have allowed the birth as the placenta wanted it and risk a very inauspicious day.  They whispered about the different repercussions each movement could have for the life of the baby, the type of cloth Saudari had chosen, her knots and where the sugar palm had grown, why the family had not called a priest to perform the proper ceremonies right away, and the family’s finances.  The village women speculated about when the child would have its birth ceremony and some laughed that it would be one of those people who need to have all thirteen life-ceremonies performed before their cremation to make up for the postponements, because the family was so poor that Ibu grew her own flowers for offerings instead of buying them at the market.  They talked about the prices of offerings, selfish husbands, tourists, affairs between pembantus and employers, who had the newest motorbike, how much the woman with the first stall in the market managed to get for a kilo of grapes…

Saudari didn’t listen to their buzzing.  She carried the yellow coconut with its bundle of wrapped placenta to the main entrance of the family home and began to bury it in the ground to the right of the front door.

At this point Ayah’s sister, Ibu’s sister-in-law, interceded, reminding Saudari that since the baby was a boy the placenta had to be buried by a member of the father’s family.  Saudari nodded irritably and watched with dark, narrowed eyes as the three short women dug the hole, buried the placenta, and placed a large, flat, black rock on top.  Then they planted a thorny pandanus shrub to frustrate nosy animals or any of the other things which skulked through the dense Balinese jungle.

As soon as burial was complete, Saudari took over again, placing frangipani and rice offerings around the hole.  Only then did she march back into the room with the exhausted Ibu and sleeping baby Ketut.  She walked in without a word, picked up the boy and flipped him over.  There was a little war of birthmarks, dimples and moles on the baby’s chubby, layered buttocks.

“What does it mean?” Ibu whispered.

“Devil-knotted head nodes,” Saudari mumbled and watched the oil glistening faintly on Ibu’s forehead, her blinking, watery eyes, rimmed with red, and her egglike belly that sagged in wrinkles and folds, an empty echo of the baby’s rear.  Finally, she sighed pity at her sister.  “Who could know this?  One birthmark on the ass means he can sit for a long time without getting tired.  More than one birthmark means that he is clever and likes to help others.  One mole means he will be poor for life, more than one means he will bring evil down upon his family.”  She looked sharply at Ibu.  “That would be us,” she added despite herself.  Ibu wasn’t paying attention, so Saudari continued, “But this?”  She pinched the puppy fat, taking hold of a whole cheek between her knuckles and her thick right thumb.  “Who can decipher this?  Moles inside birthmarks and birthmarks upon moles.  He is like a quilt knitted by the crazy woman who stares at the ricefields and starts walking this way and then changes her mind and starts walking that way and never gets anywhere.  So she just sits on her birthmark and watches the ricefields.”

“She has a birthmark?” asked Ibu.

“Who?”

“The crazy woman who stares at the ricefields?”  Ibu didn’t want her son growing up to be a crazy old man who stared at things.

“How do I know?  I don’t look.  But she sits under that tree so long every day I guess her butt must be one big birthmark.  It is Karma.  That is my guess and I would wager a babi-guling on it, but I won’t be pulling down her sarong just to satisfy your demon.  That’s all we need.”

But Saudari didn’t have any pigs to wager and Ibu had troubles beyond simple curiosity.  Her husband had warned her over and over that she could not give birth on this day, and that is exactly the day Ketut decided to come out.  Stupid, stubborn-headed baby.  Her eighth, so his name was Ketut.  Yes, she would call him I Ketut Folded Stubbornhead.

Whatever she named him, whatever the marks on his behind might mean, she would still be blamed for his birthdate ― it was wrong in three different ways.  Everybody paid attention to such things, and everybody knew the portents, though experts were consulted for precision and depth of understanding.  Ketut was a concern for the entire village.

First, the day was the dark moon night of Shiva the Dissolver.  But the correct offerings could mitigate the danger from Shiva, and maybe even turn the day to the boy’s advantage.  Second, he was born a Malik.  There were two living Maliks in the village of Pengosekan, now three, and Ketut could live with this curse by being careful and avoiding trances, though it was complicated by the address of one of the other Maliks: across the street from Ayah and Ibu’s compound.  It was strange and portentous to have two Maliks living across the street from each other, but solutions were nevertheless known.  Villages didn’t exile their Maliks any more.  It was the third mistake that had been the reason for the pineapples: the almost unheard of calendrical repetition between Ketut’s birthdates and those of his father.  And now, as if all this were not enough, Ketut was born with a behind that defied auguring.  But could only be no good.

Ketut’s father, Ayah, would not be allowed to see the baby for several hours.  The women had that much time to decide whether the boy should be a miscarriage or not.  And he was in fact a strange baby.  Aside from the complicated constellation of moles and birthmarks, his eyes were alert inside his squashed face.  They did not wobble about as other babies’ eyes do.  They did not quite follow the arguing women, but focused on something far off in the distance ― a puzzled putto sculpted in the temple, trying to understand where he’d come from and why he was pressed up against Ibu’s long breasts.  And he had an impressive scrotum.

“A baby is like a monkey,” said Saudari.  “Until its second or third year it does not know any more than a monkey.  It is not wrong to kill it, as you would kill a monkey who is stealing from you.  But we must do it today.”

“A baby is not like a monkey.”

“You’re right.  That is a guest way of thinking,” she nodded, slowly.  “But you know well that until the umbilical cord drops off, you, Ayah, and the baby are all impure.  It is weak, leak and other spirits can get to it.  It is protected by Shiva’s son, Sanghyang Panca Kumara, and will go directly to heaven even without a cremation ceremony.  A medicine man will not come near until 42 days after birth.  The 108 negative characteristics created by the four siblings are still on the baby.  Until it is twelve days old it has not even been introduced to the gods.  It doesn’t have a real name until 105 days, and it is not human until it first touches the ground on its birthday, 210 days from now.  It doesn’t have any teeth.  Under any measure, it is not a person yet, it cannot generate karma for us if we get rid of it,” she concluded, biting her upper lip with her long, unfiled bottom teeth.  “Only we must do it before the men see.”

Ibu refused, and in the end Saudari was soft to her.

When Ayah saw little Ketut Folded Stubbornhead he put down his machete, picked up the boy, and examined him for nearly two hours, upside-down, while Ibu pleaded that the baby needed to eat.  Finally Ayah returned the little human to Ibu and admitted defeat.  Shrivelled-up heads were normal for babies; Ketut’s chaotic backside was not.

“I cannot make it out.  There are too many synergies.”

“Too many what?” asked Ibu, squirting a few drops of milk onto the rock under which the placenta was buried before sticking her nipple into the baby’s mouth.

“Too many moles and birthmarks.”

“And you’re the village wise-man?  I could have told you that.  Without taking so long.”  Ibu mocked and pushed a finger of her free hand into her nose, past its first knuckle.  She stared into the distance beyond the ricefields and the bamboo grove, while the baby drank.

Ayah reached out to touch Ibu’s covered other breast with the ends of one coarse hand.  His touch was light and instinctively tender, but still Ibu flinched and looked around.  She was concerned, so Ayah picked up his machete, and walked out to the street.  He had never studied the 300 volumes needed to become a holy man, but was nevertheless well respected in Pengosekan and the neighbouring villages.  He considered himself a historian.  He knew the calendar for a hundred years forward and two hundred backwards, he knew the traditions, all the histories, time.  People came to ask him what was the good day for planting rice, for harvesting coconuts, for getting married or having children.  They came to him for all this advice, but when it was time for him to have a child it was born on the most problematic day of ten different cycles and three calendars.

The whole village would snigger for years, but he would recover.  His neighbours would still come for advice, or to ask for bamboo or mangoes.  Too many had already cut down their trees or sold their land.  When wood was needed for ceremonies or fruit for offerings, they could only go to the market to buy bamboo from Irian Jaya or guava from Thailand, which they could not afford, or ask Ayah.  He granted most requests for fruit or bamboo, because these grew quickly, but he refused to cut down teak, mahogany, coconut, kereret, or any other wood that took generations to grow.  Some considered him stingy and others assumed he was poor, but most still respected him and came for his advice.  The new son would not help his standing, but his reputation was grounded in time.  It would not be so easily shaken.

And there were remedies.  As terrible as Ketut’s birthdates were, tradition and history foresaw even such events.  They had happened before, a solution had been found and passed on through the generations.  The village needed to listen to its ancestors.  Ayah had always listened.

That evening, Ibu wrapped Ketut in a thin blanket while Putu and Made (both Folded) tried to play with the little baby.  Ayah yelled at them from the kitchen, where he was chopping onions.  Ibu couldn’t go into the kitchen while she was impure, and he was always chopping things anyway.

“Why can’t we play with our little brother?” asked Made, seven Balinese years old, four Western.

“He is not your brother,” answered Ayah.

The children of the village had been told to expect a little brother or sister, this baby had come, everyone called it Ketut, Ibu was exhausted and her belly sagged, yet Ayah said it was not their brother.  Putu and Made checked, when Ayah was not looking, and it was a boy.  But Ayah forbade them from playing with the little monkey.

As night fell, Ibu worried, the children were confused, and Ayah locked all the roosters into small bamboo cages.  While the dogs and pigs and jumping calves would leave the baby alone, the roosters could be unpredictable.  He carried Ketut in his basket outside the main gate.  Ibu had begged, couldn’t they at least leave him in the middle of the compound?  That was not what tradition demanded.  Ayah put the baby out onto the main street, in the middle of the road, then stood and stared at it.  Such an event had not happened in generations and tradition didn’t know about cars and motorcycles.  He rubbed his forehead with the back of his knuckle-and-skin hand.  Finally, he made up his mind, picked up the basket and placed it instead on the threshold of the compound, on the little bridge over the open sewer lining the road.  Having already defied tradition, he continued by waiting, watching from inside the aling-aling screening wall that was there to block out evil spirits.  (Evil spirits, unable to move in sharp angles, couldn’t manage the zig-zag turns.)  He only turned away when he saw the outline of a man whose waddling walk he recognised.  Without a gesture to this man, or so much as a look exchanged, Ayah turned his back, entered his home and closed the door.

The children stared at him, Ibu fretted, Saudari snorted, nobody spoke, and eventually they all went to sleep.

***

Early the next morning, a man called as he walked around the screening wall and entered the family compound.  The call woke Ayah.  Ibu had been awake since four in the morning, waiting for that moment.  The man repeated, “Aum Swastiastu.”

“Good morning,” Ibu answered, rushing out to greet Ayah’s brother, but eyeing only the basket he was carrying in his good arm.  “Would you like some coffee?” she said to the basket.

“Yes, thank you.  That would be fine,” Paman answered, accepting on the first offer because he was distracted by his burden.

Paman and Ayah spoke for an hour, about the weather and the harvest that was coming.  All the signs indicated that it would be generous.  The rats and birds and eels and lizards and snakes had not been bad this season, not bad at all, though the neighbours on the Mountainward side had begun taking Ayah’s potato greens and sending their hundred chickens to roam in his yard.  They’d modernised their own compound by pouring concrete over all exposed earth.  It was a mark of wealth, and they planned to start a wood-fish factory.

The men could complain about neighbours for only so long, and because Ibu and Saudari were near they ran out of things to say.  Then they just watched the bitches with tits and teeth pointing long, flopping and growling, covered in mange.

“They still eat dogs in Karangasem?” Ayah asked.

“Uh-hm.”

“Too many around here again.  We’ll have to organise the banjar.”

“It gets that way,” answered Paman.

“And what is that basket that you are carrying.  It looks like a baby.”

“It is a baby.  I found it abandoned.  If I hadn’t picked it up, the wind might have gotten in.”

“Good karma for you.  Who would do such a thing?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe they had their reasons.  I thought I could adopt it, but my wife won’t let me.  I only have one good arm, we have too many children, and maybe this one wouldn’t fit inside.”

“Maybe not,” Ayah said and flexed his round shoulders by pushing them apart.  The right one always hurt when he was near his brother.

“Maybe you want to adopt it?  You only have seven.”

“Yes, maybe we could.  He would be named Ketut Folded then, our eighth.”

“Ibu, would you like to adopt this little boy?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s settled,” Ayah said and nodded to himself.  “He is adopted today by us, his name is I Ketut Folded Stubbornhead, and his birthday is today, the first day of his new life.”

“But he’s not stubborn any more,” objected Ibu.

“You’re right.  We won’t give him a personal name.  We’ll let the priest decide,” Ayah decided.  Then he called Made, Nyoman, Putu Folded and Made Folded and told them that they had a new little brother, and that they should play with him often.  Nyoman Folded was still too young, only 14 months, Putu was out at a cockfight and the first Ketut had died young.

There remained the problems of Ketut being a Malik and of the geography of his ass, but the most serious problem was now resolved.  Ayah knew this method was the correct one, the one recommended by tradition for avoiding the problem of identical birthdays between father and son.  While there is a great degree of synchronicity in the universe, there must also be randomness.  Without chaos there is no growth, no change, and Time gets tied into knots which harm the village.

Everyone knew this.

***

Empu Resi had lived on the bend in the sacred river for nearly 40 years.  Before the tourists came, only shortly after the Dutch left, his mother had set up her shop on the dirt track called Hanuman Road.  His father had been killed at the Battle of Marga puputan ― the fight to the death.  The Balinese nobility had burned down their palaces, put on their finest clothes and jewellery, and, waving golden krises, charged the machine guns of the Dutch.  The golden swords were no match for Vickers guns, grenade launchers and Fokker bombers; thousands died, among them Empu Resi’s father. Three years later, the Dutch recognised Indonesia’s independence and Bali became part of a Muslim state.

Empu’s mother, always a little crazy, had used the last of her wits to set up the shop, and to work it for six years before she threw herself into the river.  Empu, her only child, was seven then.  He’d watched his mother every day for six years, but it was only on the day after her jump that he really looked at the three bamboo walls in between which he had grown up, the ylang-ylang roof, the simple table covered with betelnut, Chinese noodles, eggs and matches, petrol in glass jars, plastic bins filled with dry bean cakes and bits of coral infused with the devil of the sea.  He sat on the plank bench in front of the table and watched the villagers and strangers who walked by, who stopped, who kept going, and from that day he ran the shop on his own, at the bend where the water slowed and the river almost kissed the road.  He didn’t know, except perhaps by intuition, the full meaning of his location in the middle of that kiss on that particular bend of the sacred river where his mother had drowned herself, but in living there for so long he learned about the river, the road, and how they connected.

The road changed, Empu added chocolate bars, batteries and mercury skin-lightener to his inventory, but the river stayed the same.  Day and night it flowed by his shop, his home, his bed, slowing at the bend so it could turn in orderly fashion and without tripping on itself.  As it slowed the things that travelled on the river also slowed, and sometimes They stopped to talk.  And so from being a simple warung shop-seller Empu Resi became a doctor.  When he realised what was happening, he did not close his shop, but he did begin to study.  Like Ayah he did not study from the 300 volumes, but he did have teachers, many teachers, and he soon became well known not just in Pengosekan, but far and wide.  Though he continued to sell petrol and bean-cake while other warungs opened on Hanuman road, he also began to supplement his income by practising medicine.

His skill was finding things that the people from the river had taken.  They were notorious thieves, but quickly lost interest in the laundry or keys or children They took.  So when the people on the river were satisfied with his friendship, They gave him ways to find what he was looking for ― it was more fun for Them that way ― and from recovering lost objects Empu expanded to other branches of medicine.

Ayah and Ibu came to Empu Resi a few months after their adoption of Ketut.  He invited them to the back, behind the little shop, past a shrine and to an open veranda of concrete and green plastic carpeting which overlooked the same river on which they lived a few hundred meters Seaward.  Ibu and Ayah sipped black coffee on the stubby carpet and over the sound of Empu’s radio explained that Ketut would not stop crying and would not drink milk except a few drops here and there, or would drink it and then spit it back into the air.  He cried, no one could sleep, and he sometimes turned purple or yellow from crying too much and drinking too little.  If he and Ibu didn’t know better, said Ayah, they would think Ketut was angry.

Empu turned down the radio, grabbed the back of his sarong through between his legs and squatted down on bare feet.  He asked whether all the proper ceremonies had been performed.

Ayah explained that they had.  Six months after conception the purification ceremony had been performed; sharp language was not used; the four siblings had been honoured; Ayah had read from the Ramayana and Mahabharata; and Ibu had observed her prohibitions.  At birth, all the proper actions had been taken with respect to the placenta and three other siblings.  When the umbilical cord fell off, it was wrapped in cloth, placed in an offering and hung over the bed of the baby; on the three-day-week anniversary of its ecdysis, speckled chickens were grilled and spices mixed with the proper mantras were spat on Ketut’s forehead and feet three times each.  On his twelve-day birthday Ketut had received holy water, and was introduced to the gods, but no doctor had been hired to reveal which ancestor had been reborn in the child.  Ibu had stayed away from the kitchen until after the 42 day ceremony, during which red, white, black and yellow rice was put on Ketut’s forehead and hands.  A white duck pecked off the rice from the forehead while two baby chickens (one male one female) scratched it away from the hands.

“Were they stolen?” interrupted Empu Resi.  “The baby chicks were stolen?”

“No.  I couldn’t bring myself to steal someone’s chickens.”

Empu stuck his tongue out just far enough to be visible between his thin lips.  “They should always be stolen, otherwise the baby risks becoming a thief when he grows up.  The four siblings are not forgiving about the 108 negative characteristics.  But that is not the problem now, just something to worry about later.  Continue with the child’s history.”

Ayah continued listing rituals and precautions, all the way to the boy’s three-month birthday, when he had been named I Ketut Rama by the Pengosekan pedanda.  Empu Resi listened and raised his faint eyebrows when Ayah said that a high priest had named the boy and that he’d spent three months without a name.  But other than not stealing the chickens, the family had not committed any major mistakes.  Ayah was a historian, after all.

“Maybe it is this mess,” Ayah concluded, pulling the crying Ketut’s pants down and holding the little bum up in front of the holy man’s face.  “I cannot make it out.”

Empu Resi looked startled.  He had never seen such a constellation.  But that could not be the cause of the colic.  “He came into the world with that ass,” he said and touched the piece of banana-leaf he kept rolled up in his left ear, then took a cigarette from behind his right ear.  He lit the cigarette, put it loosely in his mouth and let his arms hang straight out in front, elbows on knees.  Finally he asked, through the cigarette, “Why would he be angry if that is the body he chose himself?”

Ayah and Ibu didn’t know what to say.  Ayah had a suspicion, which made him avoid looking into Empu’s lead-shot eyes.  They all had eyes like that, medicine eyes, completely flat and black, without any convexity.  Even the gentle ones like Empu Resi.  Combined with Empu’s loose skin and massive stirring ears, too far down and forward and holding the leaf, the doctor’s eyes made Ayah uncomfortable.

“Did you change anything about him after he was born?”

“Well, of course,” answered Ibu.  “We cleaned him and cut his cord and dressed him and fed him the drop of cat’s milk as is required, and―”

“No, no.  We’ve been through that.  Those are all things he could expect when he chose this body.  Is there anything that his soul chose which you changed?”

Now Ayah knew what the holy man was trying to find out.  But it was forbidden to mention Ketut’s real birth date.  He should not even think about it, or the new date would be washed away and Ketut would revert to his original problem day.

Maybe they hadn’t changed the date correctly.  Could he have forgotten something?

“Well?” pressed Empu Resi. “What did you change?”

“We acted in accordance with tradition and the calendar.”

“Ah.  On what days was Ketut born?”

Ayah looked from one side to the other, partially to remember, mostly to think what to do.

Empu waited with raised eyebrows.

“Well, we adopted him, it was Menga of the two-day-week, there was no one-day-week that day.  The three-day-week day was Beteng, Laba of the four-day-week, Umanis of the five-day-week and Saturday of the seven-day-week.  It was Dagu of the nine-day-week, the fourth consecutive Dagu of the Four-Dagu holy days.  The ten-day-week was…,” Ayah paused to rub his forehead, because he didn’t immediately remember the ten-day-week days, which never went in the same pattern. “Pandita. The day was Pandita.”  When he finished with the week cycles, he began to work through the lunar calendar.  It was complicated by the fact that Ketut was born on both the sixteenth and seventeenth day of the lunar month, one of those occasions when two days have to be squeezed into one in order to keep a balance between the sun and the moon.

When Ayah finished, Empu said, “And when were you born?”

Ayah hesitated even longer before answering.  He had to tell.  Another vacant one-day-week, another Menga of the two-day-week (there had been three Mengas in a row and two vacant one-day weeks) and on through each of the ten concurrent cycles on two labyrinthine calendars, neither of which numbers their years.

But Empu Resi had also memorised the calendars, including the non-sequential cycles, and he recognised the pattern that Ayah was hoping would go unnoticed.  When Ayah finished, he said, “Each cycle, the day before you adopted your own son.  You changed his birthday as the palm-leaf books say.”

Ibu flinched, Ayah’s shoulder hurt, and Ketut stopped crying.

“Extraordinary,” Empu continued, “The same day of every cycle, on every calendar?”

“The histories say it is not wise―”

“I understand.  You did the right thing for most cases.  But not for this child.  Ketut is determined to be born on that day and if you insist on changing it he will die, and try again in a new body, in another…”  He calculated the next conjunction.  “Oh, that’s complicated.  The most likely times would be in sixteen or forty-four solar years, but it depends on which cycles he is following.  There are secret days not represented within the regular calendars, as well as recursive cycles, and he would have to match those too.  But this is all theoretical stuff and nonsense.  What is real is that he is not your adopted son.  He is your real son.  Say it three times and think it every day from now on.”

Ayah and Ibu said it three times right there, and thought it from that day on.

Before leaving, Ayah asked about the other things, the marks and the conjunctions.

Empu answered, “Time travels in cycles, ellipses, and it wobbles as it goes.  Ketut is the only one who knows why he chose this body and this time.”

And so they left, almost as apprehensive as they had come.  Empu’s radio returned to Frank Sinatra singing that he had done it his way.  Back at home, the family slept through the night in peace for the first time in months, and Ketut rarely cried again, not even years later.

***

If Ketut’s family slept well that night, the opposite was true for Empu Resi.  Safe from the river as well as from the eight directions, he was accustomed to healthy sound sleep.  When the people from the river visited, their discussions were smooth, effortless, the conversations of friends who have lived together forty years, opposites who are lonely without each other.  Often they didn’t exchange a single word, but simply played chess together through the night.  Other times they talked about general things in ambiguous ways: how the new fertiliser was slowly destroying the ricefields and poisoning the river, how the daily burning of plastic in all the villages would eventually make everyone stupid, how young Balinese Hindus were going to Islamic schools because these were free and guaranteed a smooth career path in government or business.  Or they talked about the shrinking attention paid to the correctness of offerings, about how the Dutch couldn’t see them, or about the money-changers, car rentals and construction crews forever tearing down and building up, their bamboo scaffolding growing a metre a day, unfolding from its roots like a telescope.  Empu Resi listened through Their confusion about past, present and future.  He told Them about life on the road, and They told him about life on the river.  Every once in a while they discussed a specific problem that a client of Empu Resi’s had with the people on the river, or perhaps, much more rarely, a problem that the river people had with someone on the road.

The people on the river were different in that sense.  They rarely bothered with Empu or others like him when They wanted something or if They had a problem.  They simply solved it in their own manner, usually to the chagrin of the people on the road, who would then enlist the aid of Empu Resi.

But that night was not usual.  He went to sleep thinking about the curious pattern on the baby Ketut’s behind.  Empu Resi tried to absorb all knowledge, Hindu, Muslim and guest, but he could not wrap his mind around the shapes he had seen.  He took paraboloids and hyperboloids into his dreams, a three-dimensional geography projected onto a double-curved sphere, connecting high points and low points in the most harmonious way, bundles of lines, points and planes intersecting in ganglions of moles and birthmarks and dimples…

He had not been asleep long when swells of semi-cadaverous bodies crowded against his hammock, tilting it against the back wall and waking him.  The people from the river pressed into his bedroom.  They filled it shoulder to shoulder in a tide of omnipresent phosphorescence, their faces tinged pale-green and serious.  When she saw that Empu Resi was awake, a very old woman parted the others and stepped through.  Her fingers stretched towards Empu in disharmony from everything above her wrists, as though broken and pulled by someone unseen, much too intense, too young for her face, a gap of three or four generations.  Empu struggled not to be mesmerised by her hands.  It was their smoothness and marble solidity more than the impersonal mass of breathing bodies, grim determined looks and unfocused bland eyes rising and falling together that frightened Empu for the first time in his long years of dealing with the river people.  They could see it on his face and he knew that they could, but he still said, “No.”

The crowd fell into a cold silence.  Empu couldn’t inhale.  The woman melted back, disappeared, and the remaining mass of young men pushed themselves into every recess of Empu’s small bedroom, every tenebrous space.  He wondered whether they would kill him.

They didn’t.  They walked out, leaving Empu’s hammock swinging, with him on it slightly ill.  He could not sleep the rest of the night and rose before dawn, before the smell of burning plastic and the pounding of new construction.  He was exhausted from lack of sleep, dulled by his absence of dreams, but he had several things to do.  He puttered around making coffee and rice while the chickens woke, the sun rose, and the women swept leaves from the paths.  Eventually it was time to head Seaward to his appointment with a woman who had a dimple in each butt cheek.

So he walked, and as he passed under the enormous Pengosekan Banyan tree, a vintage British BSA motorcycle came flying from the tree and ran him over.

– by Alexander Boldizar

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