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The Tropical Sun - Belief, Love and Hate

The

Tropical

Sun

Book One: Belief, Love & Hate

 

‘there is no fire like passion,

there is no shark like hatred’

by

J. S. Philippe

Text copyright © 2016 J.S. Philippe All Rights Reserved

Dedicated to my loving wife, Jhell,

& my amazing young son.

 

The Sun, the hearth of affection and life,
Pours burning love on the delighted earth,
And when you lie down in the valley, you can smell
How the earth is nubile and very full-blooded;
How its huge breast, heaved up by a soul,
Is, like God, made of love, and, like woman, of flesh,
And that it contains, big with sap and with sunlight,
The vast pullulation of all embryos,
And everything grows, and everything rises.

Sun and Flesh” by Rimbaud (1854-1891)

This is a story of the sun and the flesh. In the tropical Pacific, the sun-drenched island of Sulawesi possessed rainforests and seas of exotic abundance and beauty. During the Bronze Age 2,500 years ago, the Malay and Javanese civilizations had both settled on the island. These were tribal peoples driven by emotion, sensuality, spiritual beliefs and the need to survive.

 

Table of Contents

Prologue

 

Book One: Belief, Love and Hate

1 Likupang

2 The Meeting

3 Hope and Yearning

4 Pantai

5 Bitung

6 The Visit

7 Worlds Apart

8 Trust and Distrust

Book Two: Commitment, Passion and Mayhem

9 Monsoon

10 Hot and Humid

11 Living life

12 Suspicion

13 Threat and Retaliation

14 Attack and Retribution

15 Bangka

16 Earth

 

Epilogue

Author’s Notes

 

[][] Prologue

Throughout human history, our sun has been venerated as an eternal life force.

Depictions of the geography, climate and

natural environment are all true to life.

 

A map of the island of Sulawesi, sometimes called Celebes.

The Pacific island of Sulawesi straddles the equator.

 

Places in northern Sulawesi, and the two principal mountains.

Human settlements were mainly around the coast.

 

Stone heads

On the island of Sulawesi there are over 400 granite megaliths,

dating from 5,000 years ago.

 

Bronze weapons and implements

A ceremonial bronze axe head, found in Sulawesi,

dated at about 2,500 years ago.

 

 

Outrigger boats

A fishing boat, and fisherman, of Sulawesi.

The boat’s bercadik design has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

 

Houses under the tropical sun

For thousands of years houses have been built using

bamboo, coconut and nipa-leaves.

 

[][] [] *1* Likupang

Melati peered out through the narrow opening of the bamboo shutter.

“Listen,” she whispered.

The Likupang tribesmen had gathered late at night. The men sat hunched on logs beside the blazing fire, drinking, muttering and arguing amongst themselves. One of the men got up to chuck a few more dry coconut stalks on the fire which flared up, crackling and puffing out smoke that wafted across on the sea breeze.

“What do you think they’re talking about Mel?” asked Sukma.

The gathering was not close enough for the two young girls to overhear, and the ceaseless whistling rasp of crickets smothered the voices of the men. Melati studied the arm waving and gesticulations of the silhouettes in front of the flames.

“The boat I expect,” she replied, guessing.

“Always the boat,” moaned Sukma. “Don’t they talk about anything else?”

Beyond the fire, Melati could see the the pearly reflection of the full moon on the bay waters. At the bottom of the beach, the waves curled and crashed into surf, foaming white in the moonlight. She drew in a sigh, wishing they could be allowed outside.

“Sit down Mel.”

Melati looked down at the impish grin and bright eyes gazing up through silky black hair lifting in the breeze. Sukma twisted around and leapt off the bed to retrieve a sandalwood comb from the table, returning to crouch back down on the bed again, bouncing with energy.

“Suk – we should be asleep.”

“Go on – it’s my turn.”

“My mother won’t like it if she catches us with the shutter open,” fretted Melati, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

“It’s alright – don’t worry,” tutted Sukma, and she began to comb the thick black hair that flowed over Melati’s shoulders. “It’s cooler with the shutter open.”

Melati glanced around the room at the four amber-coloured walls of bamboo, the closed and bolted door, the two bamboo beds and the simple table at one end, all lit by the single beeswax candle in the clam shell. Her eyes lingered for a moment on the jasmine flower decoration until Sukma’s comb caught a knot.

“Careful!” she objected, squinting her eyes closed.

When her eyes opened again, they alighted on her best sarong, folded neatly in the net storage hammock hanging from the roof joists. She started to inspect how the joists were held up by coconut trunks, and how the nipa-leaf roof slats had been bound with rattan onto the bamboo rafters. She looked down at the floor and stirred her toes in the loose sand over the pebbles, deciding that it had been boring having the room all to herself.

“I like sharing with you,” she said.

“Me too,” said Sukma from behind, smiling as she parted Melati’s hair into three handfuls.

Melati flickered a smile under the shadow of her hair, and then she thought about all the coconut husks that had been beaten into fibres, ready for Suk and her to twist into twine and rope for the boat.

“The boat’s too big,” she grumbled. “We’ll have to make more twine tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, I’m going fishing,” Sukma announced with such certainty that it sounded like she could decide anything she wanted.

“Who’s going to take you?”

“I’ll find someone,” Sukma answered as she started to plait Melati’s hair

“Who will you try first?”

“Your brother.”

“Which one?”

“You know which one!” chided Sukma.

The voices outside changed their tone.

“Sshh Suk – The men are coming back!”

Melati hastily closed the shutter as quietly as she could. They pushed down the wooden bolts to secure it, and then jumped back on their own beds. Not long after, they heard the opening of the front door of the house, and then the steps outside the door to their room stopped for a few moments, before moving on to enter the next room. Across the space between the beds Melati saw Suk grinning, and she grinned back.

They listened to the muffled low voices from the next room, too subdued to make out the words. After it seemed that everything had gone quiet again, Sukma climbed off her bed and started furtively pulling up the wooden bolts of the shutter.

“Sshh – Don’t let them hear you.”

Melati climbed off her bed, and peeked out of the gaps in the side of the shutter as it was opened. She checked through the gap underneath, before helping Sukma to clip it again on the latches at the base. Two silhouettes remained beside the fire, but the others had left for their houses.

Peering out of the other side of the shutter, they could see the flicker of candlelight through the gap under the nipa eaves of the nearby house; a shadow moved as someone inside walked in front of the candle. The house was close enough to hear the indistinct tones of conversation. Soon there was a soft muted giggle that carried across the space between the houses. Melati glanced at Sukma, who gave a tiny giggle of covert anticipation.

“What do you think they’re doing now Mel?”

This had happened nearly every night since her older brother Bandri and Sukma’s older sister Ayu had got married. Melati knew they hugged and kissed a lot, but these noises were more than kissing.

“I don’t know,” she answered honestly.

From the nearby house, faint sounds of creaking from the bamboo bed, chuckling and giggling filtered up over the eaves and down into the ears of the two girls. Whatever was happening in there could only be guessed at, and guessing was fun. The night was too enticing for sleeping.

“I think they’re splashing water.”

“They’re drinking.”

“That’s not drinking!”

“Sshh – Listen.”

They strained their hearing, separating the intriguing noises in the next house from the ardent neep-neep rasp of the crickets. The obscure sounds of rippling, giggling and creaking changed into more occasional, vaguely disturbing sounds of mumbling, deep breathing and moaning.

“Sounds like he’s hurting her?!” suggested Sukma.

“He would never do that!” rebuffed Melati, shocked at the notion. She knew how thoughtful her brother was. Indeed, her oldest brother always told him he was too soft!

“Ayu likes to tickle – she’s always tickling me,” said Sukma looking up, her pretty face flushed with agitated warmth. “If she’s tickling – he’ll try and stop her.”

Melati stifled her laughter, leaving a soft lilting snort. Sukma sniggered into a giggle.

“Sshh!” Melati grinned gleefully and tried to put a hand over Sukma’s mouth.

Now something different seemed to be happening, and the girls renewed their focus. The strange noises produced a puzzling excitement in Melati.

“What are they doing now?!” Sukma asked in a bemused tone.

The door to their room received three distinct taps. For a heartbeat, both of them froze with surprise, before reacting. Fumbling with the latches on the shutter they closed it and attempted to push down the bolts, rushing then to settle on their beds. Melati held her breath.

Another three taps and her mother’s voice, quiet but menacing, came from the door:

“Can you hear me?”

“Yes mother,” answered Melati, feigning sleepiness. “Sorry, I’m opening the door.”

She reached over from her prone position on the bed and slid back the single bolt, retreating back onto the bed, uncertain and terrified, as the door opened. For a moment the gust dimmed the candle, before it lit the figure of her mother standing in the doorway, her large bronze ear-rings catching the yellow light. The sarong she wore at night was knee-length, simple and practical. Melati could tell from her hair that she had just got out of bed.

Her mother stepped into the room, and continued straight to the shutter. She pushed it ajar and then pulled it back, muttering something under her breath as she pushed down the two thick wooden bolts; not content, she then hit down on the bolts with her fist. Turning around, she glowered at Melati.

“You know the shutter must be locked at night!” she scolded. “You’re the oldest!”

Melati instinctively curled into a foetal position on the bed. With one hand her mother lifted the hem of Melati’s sarong, exposing bare legs, before using the flat of her other hand to deliver a stinging slap to the back of a naked thigh. The sharpness of the pain made Melati bite her lip. She uttered no response.

Her mother did the same to Sukma, although with less force. Melati heard Sukma wince and stay quiet. Turning towards Melati again, her mother spoke with barely restrained anger:

“You don’t know what’s out there!”

With that, her mother snuffed out the candle with her fingers and departed back to her own bedroom, leaving the door open. Through the doorway Melati saw Harta sitting up on his couch, smirking, lit by another candle in the front room. Smarting from the humiliation, Melati poked her tongue out at her brother and quickly pulled the door shut again, bolting it. With tears running down her hot cheeks, she fell back on the bed, rubbing her thigh.

The room had dropped into darkness, but still she could make out shapes. Slivers of yellow light showed above a wall and under the door. Here and there, spots of moonlight seeped through the bamboo walling. The night and its sounds permeated the walls.

“It was my fault,” whimpered Sukma from her bed on the other side of the room. “I’m sorry.”

Melati looked towards her best friend’s shape, too chastised to move from her own bed.

“I love you Suk.”

“I love you Mel.”

Wiping away the tears, Melati lay on her back, looking up at the barely discernible underside of the roof. Closing her eyes, she made an effort of breathing through her nose – smelling the faint wisp of dying candle above the scent of jasmine. The house was quiet and now she picked up the slow pulse of the surf on the beach, beating amongst the crickets and nocturnal sounds of the forest; faint animal howling and screeching mingling into the dim cacophony of living noise.

“What were they doing Mel?” came a hushed whisper from the other side of the room.

“Sshh Suk – we must go to sleep.”

Her mind again pondered on what they had heard. Melati thought about her older sister Joyah, who grew a baby soon after getting married to Andhika. Sleepy now, she wondered if the sounds had something to do with making a baby.

 

Perched near the eaves, a male sunbird broke into his high-pitched song. Melati blinked her eyes open. She looked up at the gap above the wall where purple light gleamed into the room. Her eyes sought out Sukma, still asleep and stretched out, with long hair covering her face.

Languishing on her bed, Melati listened as brush turkeys, terns, parrots, bee-eaters and other birds transmuted the night sounds into the dawn chorus, drowning out the shimmering crickets. Then she heard the sound of the front door opening; her father usually got up first, even though he was often the last to bed.

Slipping back the bolt she opened the door a little, but closed it again as she heard her father come back into the house. He went into the other room where there was some conversation. Melati put her ear close to the slit beside her door. As her father opened the other door she caught the few earnest words from her mother:

“Wayan, we must stop them.”

“Yes, I know,” her father replied in a grave tone.

She wondered what her father would do. Maybe he would fix it so the shutter never opened. Melati couldn’t remember her father ever hitting her but she was afraid of his temper; it didn’t happen often, but he could get angry.

Returning from the tandas – ‘privacy’ room, she changed into her day-sarong, taking extra care this morning with the under-fabric. The rangkaian hantu – ‘red ghost’ had arrived. Melati was still learning that her body was obtaining a rhythm, like that of the moon. The red ghost made her anxious. It made her aware of how her body had changed, and this morning she wrapped her sarong trying to disguise the points of her new breasts.

Sukma stirred and her long eyelashes moved but remained closed; she rolled onto her side facing the wall, still unfettered by such concerns. Melati crouched down and touched Sukma’s hair, murmuring:

“It wasn’t your fault Suk.”

Tapping out the sand and any uninvited creatures, Melati pulled on her mocassin-like kasuts made from pig-skin, although often she went bare foot. Standing up she pushed the fallen hair off her face, and with dexterous fingers knotted some twine around it at the nape of her neck so that the long black tresses lay down her back.

She opened the door, walked through the front room past the still sleeping sprawl of her brother, and out to the porch. The morning air was cool and gentle on the skin. Melati could see that her father had already got the fire going in the covered kitchen beside their house, ready for her to prepare the early morning sarapan. From the hearth, smoke rose in a column to meet the slanting nipa-roofing and then travelled sideways until it found freedom. Melati’s gaze followed the smoke as it crawled lazily upwards. In the dark blue sky of the west there were two remaining stars but the moon had disappeared.

Standing in the porch, she listened to the frenetic excitement of the birdsong, building to a crescendo as if heralding the arrival of the Sun Spirit. Her eyes scanned the dark outlines of the islands at the entrance of the bay. Between them she could see the distant ocean horizon. At that moment it seemed to her as if Bangka Island was suspended; as if it was tethered by the thin line of the horizon between the darkness of the bay-waters and the brightening blue of the cloudless sky. She noticed that the peak of the island had already turned a warm green, touched first by the Sun Spirit.

In front of their village, the coral sand beach, dull white this early in the morning, stretched away to the left and right. Her oldest brother, Praba, was already up and about, doing something with a fishing boat at the edge of the surf. Taking in a breath of ocean air, she sighed, wondering at this moment whether Suk would be able to persuade someone to take her out fishing today.

She walked along the porch and into the kitchen where her father was sitting on a high bench, facing out towards the leafy thickness of the forest behind the village. His bare feet rested on a pile of coconut husks. He wore the usual knee-length kathok trousers and she could see the intricate whorling tattoo that covered his bare back. Her father seemed engrossed in thought as he meticulously wound the twine to bind a feathered flight onto an arrow shaft held between his knees.

Shifting his body, her father turned to look at her and smiled. Most usually he had a boyish grin in the mornings, despite his wrinkles. This youthful vigour usually shone through even though he had thick grey hair and a grey-flecked goatee beard that accentuated his longish face. He always told her the wrinkles were from work and laughter, but right now the wrinkles showed another reason. Something was wrong. He seemed worried, or more likely he was angry.

“Welcome to the morning, my beauty.”

He always said this. Melati always smiled and touched her forehead to the back of his lifted hand. Unexpectedly he kissed her, surprising her with the brush of his rough hairs on her cheek.

“Father,” she faltered, confused now since he didn’t seem angry with her. “I’m sorry father – it was my fault, not Suk’s.”

He looked at her intently for a moment or two before saying:

“The shutter?”

She nodded.

“Do you know why it has to be locked?”

“To stop snakes getting in.”

“Snakes – yes snakes,” said her father in a tone of sufferance. “I wish that was all.”

Melati wondered what he meant.

“Maybe scorpions?”

Her father didn’t reply immediately. She watched as he picked up the long bronze knife from the bench beside him and used it to trim the binding on the arrow. With a finger he checked the sharpness of the stone arrowhead before slipping the finished arrow into a quiver, which he then tied on his right side. The knife he pushed into a sheath which he then secured at his waist on the left side. She kept her eyes on him as he stood up; his lean body had a wiry strength, tall and darkly-tanned.

“You’re growing up now,” he said, looking down at her with raised eyebrows. “There are other animals you have to watch out for.”

“Crocodiles can’t climb in a shutter!” she declared. They were always told to watch out for marauding crocodiles that frequented the river and mangrove swamps; sometimes they walked up the beach and into the village.

Her father gave out a short laugh and for a moment or two his brown eyes twinkled.

“My beauty, I mean animals with two legs!” he said, hugging her.

Pressed up against her father’s tall body, she became self-conscious. Rarely did her father hug her like this – the hug felt strange. She put her hands on his waist to hold him away, but then just rested them there; he was muscular beneath his weathered skin and he smelt of smoked fish. Confused, she looked up into his face, studying his expression. What did he mean? What animals?

“We want – ,” he hesitated. “ – we want you to be safe.”

His eyes glazed over, becoming inscrutable as he released the hug.

“What animals, father?”

He averted his eyes from hers.

“This is a lovely fish,” he said, picking up a large seabass. Slitting the stomach with a sharp shell, he started to gut the fish in silence.

She was not a daughter to demand answers and recognised that for now the subject was closed. Melati prepared a fresh wild banana leaf, laying seaweed in the middle of the large glossy-green oval. Her father gave her the cleaned fish which she laid on the bed of seaweed. She wrapped the fish in the leaf, using coconut twine to bind it together.

“You know about the new village at Bahoi?” he said, standing beside her at the hearth. “You know the tribe is Javanese?”

She looked up at him, realising now that his animals were people.

“Yes, father.”

“They’re not Malay – they’re Java.”

She nodded.

“Their customs are different to ours.”

She looked at her father, trying to grasp his meaning. His eyes dropped as he picked up an old charred stick.

“You have to understand – we don’t know what they’re going to do.”

The manner in which he said this made her uneasy. He pushed the burning coconut husks around with the stick and then picked up the wrapped fish, laying it on top of the glowing hot embers. The green package started to smoke, sizzling slowly. Her father sighed as if he had made a decision.

“We don’t know what the Java tribesmen will do – we have to be careful!” he said emphatically, looking at her now with eyes that penetrated. “They could try to take you and Suk – they could steal you away through the shutter.”

Melati stared back at him, not wanting to imagine such a thing happening, or the reason why. Their eye contact held until he blinked and said in a softer tone:

“My beauty, it means that you and Suk must keep the shutter locked – do you understand?”

She kept staring at him, shocked at this revelation.

Sehat?” – “Alright?” he prompted, his serious eyes holding her stare.

She was a daughter that obeyed her father.

“Yes father,” she mumbled, still shocked and now blinking as if sand had blown into her eyes. “I’m sorry father.”

“That’s alright then,” he said, and gently tugged the hair trailing down her back as if he was trying to reassure her. He turned away and picked up his bow that had been resting against the pile of coconut husks. “I’ll speak to your mother.”

Without looking back he went inside the house where she heard him say in a strident tone:

“Get up Harta! – Go and look after your sister in the kitchen.”

Melati brushed away a tell-tale tear with the back of her hand just before her brother swaggered into the kitchen in his usual dirty kathok. She turned her head away and focused on the smouldering package that her father had put on top of the embers.

“So you got it for having the shutter open,” her brother gloated. “I told you so!”

She ignored him and picked up the twisted old stick that lay by the hearth. He wasn’t going to make her cry, and she forced herself to concentrate on the task in hand. Holding the folded banana leaf she pushed and turned the charred end of the stick through the layers until it popped out of the other side. Putting the stick down, she picked up a discarded bamboo arrow shaft and poked it through the hole she had made.

“Why do you always do that?!” asked her brother.

“It’s easier,” she answered without looking at him, happier that he had changed to another topic.

She thought proudly about how Dri had got the idea for making holes in the wood from her stick, but she wasn’t going to tell Harta that. She went through the same process again, and then lifted the smoking package just off the embers with the two bamboo shafts resting on stones either side of the fire. She stood up straight, turning to face her brother at last.

“Now it won’t burn!”

Standing opposite her, Harta shrugged his shoulders and grinned. One hand he put on top of her head and moved it across to his forehead.

“I’m taller than you now.”

“I don’t care,” she retorted, pushing his bare chest. “Move – I’m making the sarapan.”

He stepped back out of her way and she busied herself with scraping the soft flesh from the inside of a young coconut which her father had already split open.

“It’s easy to see you’re twins,” observed Sukma who had arrived in the kitchen a few moments ago. “But Hatty has got a bent nose.”

It was true. Ever since he had dived into that rock pool years ago Harta’s nose had a slight kink, but at least this feature did rescue his face from prettiness. Melati’s nose curved smoothly up and out. Otherwise, he had the same brown eyes and smooth oval-shaped face – as yet his face was free from stubble. Harta was more tanned than his sister, otherwise his skin was the same light brown. He had the same thick wavy black hair, although he wore it shorter – somewhere around his ears which protruded a little. His mouth had soft brown lips and regular white teeth, like his sister’s.

“I don’t want to look like a girl!”

Harta’s gentle mouth changed into a scowl as he jumped up with both hands to grab hold of the joist above his head. Lifting his feet clear of the bench he landed on the other side. The letting go of the bamboo joist made the wooden frame of the kitchen vibrate, shaking loose a few dry nipa leaves which fluttered down.

The girls looked on as Harta picked up an earthenware pot, prised the lid off and stuck a finger into the honey. Sucking his finger clean of the golden syrup he flashed a smug grin at them.

“Use this!” Melati interjected, throwing a bamboo utensil at him.

Catching it with his free hand, Harta countered:

“Thank you twin!”

Holding the pot against his chest, he turned his back on her and looked out towards the forest trees and the dense simmering jungle beyond.

 

The Sun Spirit burst over the low hills to the east and all the colours exploded. In the dazzling sunlight, the bay spread out into a glittering expanse of turquoise and azure tints. Beside the brightness of the white beach, coconut palms stood tall with emerald sprays of long feathered leaves and russet-orange clusters of nuts at their centre. The crowded shadows of the jungle became a multitude of vibrant hues, greens, browns, reds and yellows. And all around sounded the clamour of life. The ordinary violence of the tropical dawn had brought with it a sharp clarity and the early prospect of heat.

Melati turned to see her mother coming into the kitchen. She had pushed her greying hair up into a bunch; her day-sarong was similar to the one she wore at night, except batik decorated in dark blue and red patterns of the Life Spirits.

Feeling the urge to repent for last night, without speaking Melati threw her arms around her mother’s waist, leaning her head against her mother’s shoulder. She felt the heavy bronze ear-rings clunk against her temple and wondered afresh how her mother managed to wear them all the time. Raising her head Melati could see up close how her mother’s earlobes had been stretched over the years, and found herself feeling grateful that bronze was now too precious to be made into ornaments.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling her head back to kiss her mother on the cheek. “We will keep the shutter closed at night – I promise.”

Her mother’s dark eyes with their black eyebrows looked into her own. Her eyes seemed to be sorrowful now although Melati was often unsure of her mother’s feelings; her mother kept many things to herself. Returning the hug, her mother nodded and smiled back. Then she looked at the other two and smiled absently, as if lost in her own thoughts.

Harta put the honey pot down on the bench, and then came to his mother. Bending his shoulders down, he picked up her hand and touched it to his forehead while she placed her lips fleetingly on the top of his head.

Her father joined them, now appearing to be in his usual convivial mood.

“Children, remember to be thankful,” he prompted.

He knelt on one knee facing the rising sun, the others doing likewise. Melati waited for her father to speak before closing her eyes.

Mengalu-alukan Semangat lahir dari Ibu Bumi.” – “Welcome our Spirit born from Mother Earth,” he murmured.

This was a familiar routine, but this morning Melati reflected on the idea of the Sun Spirit being born. She thought about babies when they were born and how small they were.

As the family ate their sarapan at the table in the porch she asked:

“Father, I want to know about the Sun Spirit?”

Her father stopped eating.

Ya, sudah tentu.” – “Yes, of course.”

Everyone waited for the question and Melati hesitated.

“Why, I mean how – How does the Sun Spirit get born?”

He raised his eyebrows and paused, pulling out a fish bone from between his lips as he prepared the answer.

“We are in the dry season now,” he began. “Today the sun will be very hot. She will rule the sky today, but soon will come the wet season when the heavy rains will water the earth and all the plants to give everything life.”

He waited until Melati and the others showed acknowledgement, with a customary small nod of the head.

“With the water Mother Earth will be bountiful, but always above the clouds there is our Spirit who looks down on us all. So there is always the Sun Spirit who is the Mother Spirit, and then there is the Moon who is the Father Spirit. Mother Earth and Father Water are the Life Spirits and they breathe life into all the other spirits who are born into the world.. And in the mornings the Sun Spirit is born from Mother Earth,” he explained. “The Malay have handed down this knowledge from mouth to ear, from one generation to the next.”

“The Sun Spirit is not being born like you or your brother,” said her mother, who then looked at her husband. “It has a different meaning, doesn’t it Wayan?”

“Yes, Endah,” he said.

Melati saw the exchange of glances between her parents.

“Your mother is correct – it’s different… The spirits of the plants and animals live for a reason, but we do not always know why. But in some way they all depend on each other and we depend on them. All the different birds and all the other creatures need the forest’s plants in some way, and so all of these spirits need Mother Earth from where every spirit gets born – and so we say that our Sun Spirit is being born every morning.”

Melati imagined again the sun being born like a little baby, and realised her error. She looked at Sukma who was blinking her eyelids. Harta scratched his nose.

“It takes time to understand,” her father said. “Bandri understands well.”

The girls both smiled at Bandri’s name. Harta rolled his eyes up under their lids.

“Harta – be careful,” warned her mother.

“Father, Bandy is still in bed,” said her brother.

Her father slapped his hand down on the table, making it clatter.

“You have not earned the right to talk that way!”

Melati froze and the others didn’t move either, mindful of how quickly his anger could be sparked. He glared at her brother who dropped his eyes respectfully.

“When you join the men and receive the mark of the Spirits on your back it will be different,” her father said in a steadier tone. “But then you face the judgement of the others!”

 

The two girls looked after a pet civet, a furry cat-like animal. Musang was a male civet cat with black and grey markings; they had kept him since he was a kitten. In the mornings one of their first occupations was to feed Musang. The civet cat jumped up into the girl’s arms whenever they offered him wild bananas, which were his favourite treat. Musang’s cage was built on the shady side of Wayan’s house, in the centre of the small village of six houses and assorted other wooden structures. The cage was where the girls liked to chat together while they played with their pet and cleaned out his bedding.

Melati sang quietly to Musang as she crouched on the floor with the civet cat on her lap. She was thinking about whether she should say to Suk what her father had told her, but she didn’t want to scare her young friend. Maybe she should talk to Ayu and Joyah first?

“There’s your brother,” Sukma announced, peeking through the small square holes in the walls of the bamboo cage.

Bandri had finally emerged from the neighbouring house and was striding towards the river. The brilliant orb of the sun had just cleared the horizon, but this was considered a late start to the day; it was coolest early in the morning.

“I’ll ask him now,” Sukma added with happy determination implanted on her sweet features. She opened the cage door and ducked out, leaving Melati to follow and tie the door shut behind them.

“You two like hiding in there!” the young man remarked, turning to smile down at the girls who walked beside him.

“Dri,” Sukma said, using his soft name. “It’s going to be lovely day – if we can go fishing?”

“I expect it will be,” he answered with a knowing rise of the eyebrows.

He glanced at Melati who smiled her understanding. In the bright morning sunlight she could see the tiny flecks of green in the brown of her brother’s eyes – it made them captivating. She always wondered why no-one else in her family had green in their eyes. Suk often reminded her of how handsome he was, but Melati saw him as just her brother, with special eyes.

“You should ask your father first,” she suggested, knowing that the tribe would consider it unseemly for her brother to go fishing with the younger sister of his wife unless Suk’s father or brother also went. There were expectations and customs.

“Alright,” said Sukma, skipping to keep up. “I’ll ask if we can go fishing – all four of us should go fishing!”

He burst into an affable chuckle and jested:

“You’re too clever for me!”

Bandri and the girls stopped outside Agung’s work shed, where Sukma’s older brother was hard at work. His unkempt long hair half-obscured his brooding features as he concentrated on the task in hand, apparently oblivious to his visitors.

“Just watch,” Bandri whispered to the girls.

The three of them stepped up onto the compacted stone and sand floor of the work shed. All the other houses in the village also had floors and porches which were raised above the surrounding ground by piling up pebbles and sand – in this way they kept dry in the rainy season.

Agung had already carved out the knife blade from fine-grained hardwood and rubbed it smooth. They watched as his large strong hands painstakingly pressed this model into a bed of fine, compressed, damp sand, which had been sprinkled with finely-ground, sun-bleached coral. He then looked up briefly, acknowledging their presence with a simple welcome:

Pagi.” – “Morning.”

Tossing his hair aside with a shake of his head, Agung gave them an awkward grin and then continued his work. Bandri and the two girls stepped further into the work shed which was open on one side. The other three walls had lengths of wood and bronze-making equipment stacked up against them, save for the single door into Agung’s house which was built almost as an afterthought beside the work shed.

“Have we got enough ore?” Bandri asked, picking up a green-tinted rock from the small pile on the floor.

Biasanya tidak.” – “Not usually,” Agung grunted.

Bandri chuckled a little, and then asked:

“Can they watch?”

Melati felt her face become hot and she gazed down at the ground, knowing that Agung would look in her direction. He spoke so little and she could never look at him directly. He wasn’t ugly but he was enormous and unwashed. Agung frightened her.

The consent appeared to have been given, and Bandri started to give them an explanation of the process as he helped Agung prepare the mould. Although the girls had not expected a lesson in bronze-making, they perched on a pile of wood in the shade of the work shed.

“It’s a change from making twine,” Melati whispered in Sukma’s ear.

“And we’ll go fishing later Mel – you’ll see.”

Smiling, Melati turned back to watch their brothers who were busy adding more charcoal to the fire that had been burning in a big stone hearth. On both their backs, over the left shoulder blades, they bore their manhood markings of their Mother and Life spirits. Melati tilted her head as she thought about the ornate design showing a part circle emerging from waves representing the seas, rivers, the rains and the blood within us. As their brothers worked her mind wandered; she thought about why her father and Suk’s father had much bigger tattoos; Melati had been told by her father that he had come from a tribe called Kima – although she had never seen the Kima tribe herself. Then she started thinking again about the sun being born, and babies.

“Feel this,” said her brother, interrupting her day dream. He put some white powder in their hands which felt dry and slippery between the fingers. “It stops the sand sticking to the metal.”

“What is it?” asked Sukma, beaming at Bandri.

“Coral that’s been ground into dust.”

Agung was sprinkling the dust onto the model knife, and then he added some thin bamboo strips for sprue channels. Melati watched as the big man focused on fastidiously manipulating the tiny strips of bamboo. As he bent over she could see the powerful muscles flex in his back and legs. Even though he was Suk’s brother, Melati was astonished that he could be this gentle when he was also so intimidating.

The two young men picked up a rectangular wooden frame which they placed over the container with the model knife. Fascinated, she watched as they sprinkled on more coral dust, and then added more damp sand on top to fill the wooden frame. Agung tamped the sand down hard with a mallet, until flat and level with the top edge of the frame, and then they fitted a wooden cover on top.

“This is the tricky bit,” explained Bandri as Melati now paid full attention. “We have to get the mould open and take out the wood knife and bamboo strips to leave empty spaces – the gaps will let the air escape when the hot metal is poured into the mould. Then we have to put the mould back together again without breaking it.”

The girls looked on as their brothers worked as a team, clamping the two halves together again with extreme care, and then standing the entire mould on end. Now the hole at the top was ready to receive the molten metal, which, as her brother explained, would end up being the shaft for the knife handle.

Bandri added more charcoal to the fire while Agung pumped vigorously using a bellows arrangement. It made the fire burn so fiercely hot that the green-tinted ore started to smelt into a molten copper alloy in the granite crucible. The temperature in the work shed had risen considerably and both girls drank water from a large container that Agung had filled earlier from the stream behind the village. Melati loosened the top of her sarong and brushed away the perspiration from her face.

“That’s the melted bronze,” her brother said eventually with a triumphant flourish, as he scraped off the slag on the top of the crucible. “Have a look.”

Melati felt the incredible heat hit her face as she looked over at the bright yellow contents. The girls stepped back as Agung picked up the heavy crucible with a pair of tongs, and poured the lava-like liquid into the mould while Bandri guided the melt as it disappeared into the hole. The whole thing seemed to spark into flames, throwing a radiant golden glow over the working men.

“Let’s hope that will be a good one!” gasped Bandri. Both men had perspiration dripping from their torsos. Bandri wiped the running beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of his arm, exclaiming “It makes you very thirsty!”

The two men drank copiously and poured shell-fulls of fresh cold water over their heads and sweating bodies. They both wore loose fitting kathoks which left their chests and lower legs bare. As they raised their arms to throw water over themselves, the toned young muscles in their arms were exercised. Melati eyes flitted over the large shining smooth muscles moving on Agung’s chest and rippling abdomen, before quickly averting her gaze. As she turned away, she saw her friend’s eyes glinting.

“Your brother’s got hard muscles,” whispered Sukma in her ear.

Melati blushed in embarrassment – she hadn’t been looking at her own brother. Turning away from Sukma she faced Bandri, trying to ignore Sukma pinching her from behind. Suk’s pinches didn’t hurt but she always chose the worse times to do it.

“When will it be ready?” she asked, as Sukma sniggered behind her.

“When it goes hard,” he said with sparkling eyes.

Sensing some joke but not understanding it, Melati felt her face burn hotter as Sukma went into a fit of giggles.

“Is that when it becomes bronze?” she asked seeking clarification, pushing Suk’s hand away behind her back. Sukma pinched her again, giggling behind her. Melati’s face and body burned hotter still and she looked at the floor.

“When it cools down,” she heard him answer with a chuckle.

“And then you get a knife?” she asked, looking up at her brother again and trying to understand.

He nodded and smiled, looking at her with sympathetic eyes. She smiled back.

“We take the mould apart when it’s cold,” he added for her benefit, even as Sukma carried on giggling. “Sometimes it doesn’t work and we have to melt it again.”

Just then, Melati realised that Agung was watching her and she stopped smiling in the panic of discovery. A chill ran through her. In that moment, she saw the faint scar that marred his left eyebrow and the light brown eyes that had fixed on her. She thought he was going to smile, but instead he turned away and picked up two pieces of wood.

“A handle,” he said factually and handed them to her brother.

Bandri gave them to her – they were heavy and hard. She looked down at them, turning the carved mangrove wood halves over in her hands, before passing them on to Suk. When she looked up she saw that Agung had just left the work shed, disappearing into his house through the door. She breathed again, feeling her temperature begin to cool down.

“The cast bronze will need some scraping clean, and then the handle is bound onto the shaft,” said her brother, showing them how the halves fitted together. “The blade needs polishing and sharpening.”

The engaging care with which her brother had explained all this was in such contrast to the almost cold-hearted detachment of Suk’s brother. Bandri was so articulate whereas Agung hardly said a word. Although everybody knew each other in their small tribe, sometimes Melati couldn’t understand why these two got on with each other so well.

 

Leaving the shaded heat of the work shed, the two girls walked the short distance to Rukma’s house to ask about fishing. Deep in chatter, the two girls ambled past the children playing and their mothers doing household chores.

“It was wonderful, wasn’t it?” enthused Melati. “I mean it was really clever what they did.”

“I could do that – if I had muscles!” said Sukma, giving a humorous imitation of manly strength, prompting Melati to poke out her tongue in a flippant gesture.

“Suk, why does your brother not say much?”

Disregarding the question, Sukma stuck out her own mocking tongue and re-focused on her mission for the day.

“There’s father,” she bubbled. “I’ll ask him now.”

Rukma was on one knee in the shade of his porch, pulling down hard on a shaft of wood, flexing it. On his back Melati could see the large tattoo similiar to the one on her father’s back. When she drew closer she could see that Rukma was making a big bow – it was longer than she was tall. She could see the carvings in the marbled-red wood of the shaft and the notches at the top and bottom readily to receive the bowstring. Sukma’s father was always carving something; he had given Melati another bamboo whistle yesterday, to add to the other three – each one gave a different note.

“Father,” started Sukma. “We want to help with fishing today.”

Melati smiled as she watched his expression change from concentration into amusement. His craggy face with its sparse beard and curly hair, undecided on its colour, seemed shambolic and on his chest sprouted masses of grey hair. He stood up straight, a gentle giant of a man. He was as big as Sukma’s brother, but much older and reassuring, and funny.

“What are you fishing for?” His deep voice had a tantalising timbre.

Rukma looked over the top of his young daughter and grinned at Melati. His teeth were crooked and his expression conspiratorial, as if he was sharing a joke with Melati without letting Sukma in on it. He blinked his eyes a few times and Melati chuckled.

“Fish! – lots of fish!” answered Sukma earnestly.

“Aaahh!” he exclaimed between his teeth, and looked out from the shade of the porch across the bay. Melati followed his gaze out across the crisp white beach and the deep-turquoise bay towards the islands. So transparent was the air that it might have vanished altogether and she could see individual trees on the distant islands. On such an astounding day the bay was breathtakingly beautiful. Beyond the breaking waves, a flock of squawking sea birds swirled and plunged like falling arrows into a shoal of fish.

“Aaahh – Too hot now,” he tutted, shaking his head. Melati thought that he must have taught his daughter how to ‘tut’. “Too hot – Too hot to sit out there in a boat.”

Most of the morning had passed and the sun glared down from high in the sky. There seemed to be light everywhere as Melati looked around. The brightly-lit sandy ground was punctuated by sharp shadows cast below every coconut palm. With almost no wind, the ground and everything the sun fell on to seared with heat. By now the height of the tropical sun had given this heaving heat a momentum, becoming a blow that needed to be ducked.

“Kemudian maka – sila.” – “Later then – please.” Sukma’s hug and emphasis on the last word did the trick.

“Later – later Suky daughter,” Rukma conceded, smiling down and stroking her hair as she beamed up at her father.

“This is narra wood,” he told them, changing the subject as he hefted the bow shaft in one hand while resting the other large hand lightly on his daughter’s slim shoulder. He put the bow shaft down and then picked up a twine-like length which he draped over Melati’s palm. “And do you know what this is?”

It was brown and bendy, but it wasn’t coconut twine. She shook her head with a grin, wondering what he was going to say.

“From a crocodile tail,” he said. “Where the meat joins the bone.”

Melati cringed and chucked the salt-cured sinew at Sukma, who pulled it off her free shoulder and lifted it to her nose to smell.

“Jahat!” – “Nasty!” Melati screamed with exaggerated disgust.

Rukma broke into a raucous laugh.

“But good for a bow,” he said, wiping his eyes with mirth.

Rukma’s wife, Kasuma had appeared in the doorway onto the porch. Witnessing the exchange, she chuckled to herself before announcing:

“We have prepared a spread of fruits and honey – just for the women.”

The last phrase made it sound special, and Melati wondered why Rukma was excluded.

“You can come too,” she said, smiling her welcome up at Suk’s father.

“Oh no, not for me!” he laughed, brandishing his partly made bow. “I’m busy here!”

 

The girls were surprised to see the low circular table that was set in the middle of the room. Melati knew the table had been made by Rukma using coils of rattan, but the table itself had now been decorated with sprays of flowers and a collection of fruits: bananas, rambutans and lychee in a sandalwood bowl. There were bamboo mugs with vessels of water or maybe fruit-juice. And in the middle of the table was a pot of honey – Melati recognised the earthenware pot from their kitchen. But the most unusual thing, Melati noticed, was that the sandy floor had been swept into a pattern with concentric circles around the table.

After taking in all this, Melati looked at her mother. Endah was quietly sitting on the floor behind the table, looking austere and thoughtful.

“This is our time,” Kasuma told them as she closed the door. “It’s for us to talk together.”

The girls glanced uncertainly at each other.

“What’s it for?” mumbled Sukma.

The two shutters were already closed, but instead of being dark the room was lit by sunlight spilling through the gaps above the walls and also by the two beeswax candles on the table.

“This is where you sit, Mel,” said Kasuma. “And this is where you sit, my daughter.”

The girls sat obediently on the floor, looking at each other across the top of the table with its bountiful display. Kasuma crouched on the floor opposite Endah.

“Don’t look so sad,” declared Kasuma. “This is a happy time.”

Melati smiled at her mother who smiled back with reassurance. Melati wondered what all the mystery was about and looked at Suk who now had a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

“Our Sun Spirit and Mother Earth give us all these things,” Kasuma said reverently. “We should be quiet now and be thankful.”

Avoiding Suk’s expression, Melati looked at their mothers in the candlelight. Only now did she see that they both wore their best sarongs, and had combed and decorated their hair with care. She thought that the soft light made them look younger.

Kasuma had a stocky frame and strong face, but gentle eyes. Melati thought of her as a quiet woman, calm and thoughtful, always there making meals for people. If she wasn’t making meals she seemed to be making clothes or decorations. Melati decided that this spread of honey and fruit must be her work.

“You are both growing to be women one day,” began Kasuma. “So today we must talk about these things – between mothers and daughters.”

There was a long pause and then Endah spoke.

“We can tell you how babies come into the world,” she said with an unusually steady voice. As if reading Melati’s mind she added “Not about the Sun Spirit.”

Melati gazed at her mother and realized that this meeting was something both their mothers had arranged. Her mother looked back, blinking as if to acknowledge it.

“This is about how you both came into the world,” Kasuma continued. “How everybody comes into the world.”

“Because you have a baby from here!” Sukma announced confidently, pointing at her stomach. “We saw them grow in Joyah and Puteri.”

“That’s right,” said Kasuma brightly. “And you know they are born between the legs.”

Melati was doubtful about how this could happen. Babies were small but looked too big to be born between the legs.

“There’s a little place between every woman’s legs, but it can get big enough for a baby to come out,” elaborated Kasuma. “You both have a little place between your legs.”

Melati knew the place she was talking about. That was where the red ghost came from, and suddenly it made sense. So that’s what it was for!

“Where I go to the..?!” asked Sukma, gesturing her amazement.

Melati tried not to laugh, but Sukma saw her and protested.

“So you don’t know either!”

“That’s alright,” Kasuma reassured her. “I didn’t know when I was a girl.”

“So where is it?” asked Sukma indignantly.

“It’s the place in the middle,” responded her mother simply.

Sukma went thoughtfully quiet for a moment and looked down at the floor. Then she looked up at Melati and smiled defiantly.

Kasuma looked at Sukma, and then at Melati.

“So that’s alright then – you know where I mean.”

Melati nodded.

“Good – but you need to know how the baby gets inside your belly.”

The notion of the baby getting inside her belly sent a shiver down Melati’s spine, even though she guessed the baby would be very small when it went inside. But she had thought about this problem before, and she wanted to know the answer.

“How?” she asked. “I mean how does the baby get there?”

 

They picked up the fruit as they talked. They peeled and ate the fruit, and dribbled the fruit with the runny honey of wild bees. During their long time together, the four of them discussed many things until the girls had become fully aware of the role of women in the tribe.

Later, Kasuma brought in a bowl of boiled shellfish. They stayed together inside the shaded room, eating, talking and sewing, until the mid-day heat had dissipated.

By mid-afternoon, the girls felt brave enough to venture outside. Rukma was sitting on the porch, almost asleep with his legs propped over a log. He turned his head as Sukma opened the door. Standing behind Sukma, Melati felt awkward knowing what she knew now, and lowered her eyes to the floor.

“Shall we go fishing then?” he asked blithely.

Sukma hesitated, as if she had forgotten all about it.

“Yes father,” she answered, unable just now to look him in the face.

 

“I told you we would go fishing!” said Sukma with a satisfied grin.

Melati grinned back at her as she donned the fishing hat; the conical broad-brimmed hats were made from nipa leaves to shield their faces from the glare. The sun was lower in the sky now, bright but not so hot. Over their shoulders and arms they had pulled on loose fitting fisherman’s garb to ward off sunburn.

Rukma and Wayan prepared two boats on the sloping beach. Fishing gear and bait had been loaded, and also containers of drinking water. The men pushed their quivers into pouches and lay their bows along inside the small hulls. The hull of each boat was supported upright on the sand by the bamboo outriggers on each side held in place by two arching cross beams at the bow and stern.

Sukma was already sitting down in the bow of her boat, eagerly holding on to a paddle rather too big for her, ready to go. Melati stepped in and sat down in the bow of the second boat, holding onto the sides with her paddle resting at her feet.

“Ready!?” called Wayan as he and Rukma pushed the boats into the breaking surf, before jumping into the sterns and paddling hard.

The sea was quite placid today, yet the thrill of ploughing through the white spray made Melati scream with the pleasure of it. She saw that Sukma was doing her best to paddle through the breakers. Once through the surf, Melati picked up her own paddle.

The afternoon sun glinted off the rolling glass-green surface, but she could see right down through it to the rippled sandy bottom and the submarine movements of life. A tight mass of tiny fish hovered near the boat then darted away in a swarm as she put the paddle in the water. The yellow sand soon gave way to green sea grass.

Her father pointed out a group of large oval shapes hovering beneath them, each about the size of Rukma’s table. Melati could make out the pattern on the marbled shells and the outlines of their four moving feet; it looked like their heads were nibbling the sea grass. Earlier her father had shown her the tracks where the all the sea turtles had pulled themselves up onto the beach last night to lay their eggs in the sand.

A big shoal of small fish passed under the boat, followed quickly by a line of much larger torpedo-shaped creatures. From above she couldn’t tell what they were, sharks maybe.

Puffing, trilling sounds made her look up and she grinned in delight at the sight of a pod of dolphins prancing through the waves. One of the smiling shining spirits, leaping free of the water, seemed to look right back with a knowing glint in his eye. He splashed beneath the surface and swam to their boat, submerging beneath them while turned on his side, waggling a fin and his grinning beak as if to greet them before flipping his tail effortlessly and streaking to rejoin his family, leaving her with a feeling of serene warmth.

“Good spirits,” her father confirmed with a chuckle as she oozed admiration.

Joyfully she surveyed the horizons and looked back at their village nestled above the white beach between the feathered coconut palms. Behind, the lush-green blanket of forest and jungle rolled up towards the mountains in the distance.

On the sea-bed were lots of shellfish, crabs, sea cucumbers, sponges and urchins. Looking carefully she could make out the sea-fans poking up. Further out she saw bright blue starfish and a giant clam with its two shells open like a mouth with gums of blue-green flesh, and then another, and then the outcrops of coral started.

“Let’s see what we have today,” her father said as he stopped paddling beside a log bobbing on the surface.

He reached over and starting pulling. After several heaves on the wet rope a weighted bamboo fishing trap broke the surface. About half the length of the boat, each trap had a funnel entrance into which fish were enticed by the bait inside. Through the gaps in the bamboo mesh Melati could see a long silver barracuda thrashing about with gaping fang-like teeth, a lion fish and a stonefish.

“That fish has eaten the others, but not those two,” grumped Wayan. “What do think – shall we let them go?”

Melati didn’t think the big fish cooked well anyway; it had lots of bones and she knew her father wasn’t that keen on it. The red and white striped fish with extravagantly long spines had no meat on it. And everyone hated the ugly brown fish that was disguised to look like a stone; stepping on one was known to be cripplingly painful.

“Alright father,” she agreed, happy that he had asked her.

Opening the door in the top of the trap, he turned it upside down, and shook. With the trap clear, he turned it back over and fixed some bait in the bottom, then closed the door and let it slip back down to the sea bed.

In the other boat Rukma had pulled up a couple of large yellowfin tuna. As he yanked the trap to the surface, the thrashing was so vigorous that it foamed the water, soaking Sukma with the splashes coming through the gaps in the mesh.

“We’ve got two really big ones!” Sukma yelled. “Look at these!”

Wayan paddled across beside the other boat and locked the outriggers together. Now the two boats were more stable, they could pull the trap completely out of the water.

“Aren’t they beautiful?!” Melati crooned.

She watched the magnificently streamline fish with streaks of blue, yellow and shining silver, their long yellow fins flashing before her eyes as the muscular creatures kicked and fought, shaking the trap violently in their hands and emitting a halo of salty spray from their drying bodies. They were so sleek and full of life that she felt a great sadness as they started suffocating in the waterless air. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, imagining that she was speaking to their spirits.

“They’ll feed all of Likupang tonight,” Rukma remarked cheerily as he gazed at the fish flapping away inside the trap.

But Wayan was gazing at his daughter who had placed her open palms on the vibrating trap, trying to ease their death struggle.

“We built the first house in Likupang,” her father said. “Do you remember?” he added, glancing across at Rukma who looked up at him.

“Kasuma chose the spot,” replied Rukma a moment later.

“I think Endah chose the spot,” countered Wayan.

Sukma was grinning already.

“And you picked up an old branch and pushed it in the ground.”

“An old branch with a kink in it, wasn’t it Rukma?”

Yang liku pang la adalah, bukankah Wayan?” – “A bent branch it was, wasn’t it Wayan?”

Ia adalah satu liku pang. Bahawa la adalah,” – “It was a bent branch. That it was,” confirmed Wayan.

Melati looked up at her father’s twinkling brown eyes, and started to smile.

“So we built the house on that spot, didn’t we?” said a grinning Rukma.

“Oh yes we did, and all the rest we did,” answered Wayan.

Jadi Likupang adalah di mana liku pang la adalah!” – “So Likupang is where the liku pang was!” they all chanted together.

For some reason this familiar refrain never failed to amuse.

 

It was low tide when they paddled the fishing boats in through the mouth of the river. On the right they passed the dark-green mangrove swamps. On the left they passed the broad sandy beach that fronted the Likupang village.

Further up the river, Praba and Agung were working in the boat-building shed high on the left bank. The two fishing boats were paddled on up the river until the bows were run up on the bank where Praba and Agung had come down to meet them.

Melati watched Agung greet his father respectfully, before smiling at Sukma who was grinning up at her big brother. So at least he can smile, thought Melati. Then Agung turned to pull the boat with its two occupants up out of the water.

Praba grinned when he saw the fish.

“Well done little sister – it looks like you two got a bit wet.”

She felt the front of her boat lift in the air, with her in it, and then her big brother hauled them up the bank without any apparent effort. As Melati took off her hat, the dried salt made it stick to her long hair. Sukma’s hair was stiff with salt.

“That water is fresh – I’ve just brought it from the stream,” Praba told the girls, pointing to a large container next to the partly completed hull of the big boat. “You two can use it to wash your hair.”

“I’ll take the fish,” said her father. “The women will cook them.”

Agung helped Wayan carry the heavy fish up the bank and into the village. Rukma and Praba stayed and started chipping away at a plank with a bronze axe.

Melati watched the two men as they then sized up the wood plank against the large ribs of the hull. She estimated that the hull was as long as two houses! She looked at the partly completed hull with all its cut and shaped wood, propped up on a wooden cradle laid on top of the sloping river bed. She knew that the holes for all the wooden pegs had been made with a twisted bronze stick; Dri had explained to her that the pegs will swell tight in the water. And she could see where they were using all the twine and rope that she and Suk had been making.

“It’s going to be a very big boat!” she said to Sukma.

“Too big!” grumbled Sukma as Melati helped to pull off her fisherman’s top.

Wearing their sarongs, the girls bent over and poured shell-fulls of water over their heads to rinse the salt out. The water wet the top of their sarongs, making the fabric cling to the skin.

“You’re getting breasts,” Melati reminded her friend. “Don’t let them see.”

“I’m not letting anyone near my middle place,” Sukma replied, prompting Melati to hush her.

They started untangling their long wet hair with little wooden combs, which they always kept in small pockets inside their sarongs. Relaxing, the two girls lounged on a large tree trunk facing the river, preoccupied with combing dry their long hair in the warm late-afternoon sun.

Melati looked over her shoulder at the two men who were now working with a tree trunk. Praba lifted up one end and hauled it around, then let it drop on the ground with a great thump, raising a cloud of dust. He was more heavily built than her other two brothers, and very strong – and very proud of it too, she thought. Some of his unmanageable hair fell over his face and he pushed it back with a hand, before picking up the other end of the trunk. Nearby, there were several more tree trunks that had been cut and dragged from the forest; Melati reckoned that her brother spent more time working on the boat than anybody else.

“I don’t know why they want such a big boat?” complained Sukma, trying to remove the last knots from her hair.

“My big brother’s obsessed with it,” Melati sighed, turning her head back to look somewhere else.

She looked across the river at the far bank. Her eyes scanned from right to left, starting at the mangrove swamp where the river flowed out into the bay, and then left to where nipa palms grew, and then her eyes took in a clump of small trees at the base of the hill opposite. Her eyes kept scanning along in a leftwards direction, but something made her glance back at the clump of trees.

In Melati’s mind was the image of a pair of eyes, and a face, but this face appeared upside down, with the black hair below the eyes. The small trees were rambutan bushes, and behind them were a few taller trees with grey-dappled trunks. She looked again at the shadowy foliage and could see the clusters of red hairy fruit – maybe this is what she had seen? She gazed at the bushes, trying to let the shapes reform into a face. Deep in shadow, what looked like a small pale smudge widened into a slit or a grin, and then the eyes blinked.

With a sharp intake of breath, Melati reached out and gripped Sukma’s arm.

“What?”

“A face!” Melati uttered.

“Where?”

“Look – a face!” she exclaimed, louder now and pointing at the bush.

“What face?” Praba asked, turning around to look. Seeing his sister still pointing across the river, he demanded again “What face?!”

“Over there – in that rambutan bush – it was a face,” she answered, feeling now that something was wrong about the face. “I did see it! – but it’s gone.”

Praba stared across the river for a moment or two, before telling Rukma:

“Someone’s over there!”

For the first time, Melati felt the sudden chill of fear.

“Hide!” Rukma hissed at the girls. “Get inside the boat – in there – quick hide!”

Sukma was half-dragged by Melati through a gap in the hull. Praba scrambled over a trunk to grab his bow and quiver, while Rukma rushed to get his from the fishing boat. Inside the protective thick wooden walls of the hull, the girls shrank from sight. They heard curses and muttering, and then a shrill whistle from just outside the hull. Sukma started to say something but Melati glared at her and she kept quiet.

Keluar dari pokok itu!!” – “Get out of the bush!!” Praba shouted from the other side of the planking.

There was silence for a few moments, and then through the gap at the back of the hull Melati saw Agung and Harta running from the village, with their bows. She watched through a long chink in the planking as they joined Praba and Rukma. Shifting her position to get a better look, she could see them all crouched down behind tree trunks and beside the hull – their bows loaded with arrows!

“Mel saw somebody in the bushes over there,” she heard Rukma explain.

“Tell everyone to stay inside the houses,” Praba instructed Harta. “And get ready!”

Her twin brother took off back to the village.

The men stayed quiet for a long moment, watching intently.

“Something moved – They’re still there!” Praba whispered. “Java dogs!” he added viciously.

“Shoot arrows,” said Agung. “Scare them.”

“Son – just one arrow!” Rukma told him. “Hit the big tree trunk behind the bush.”

Agung pulled back the bowstring until it touched his lips, sighting and judging the distance. He held the big bow flexed for a moment, muscles taut. A short, sharp sound marked the release, followed by the split moment it took for the arrow to flash over the river, followed by a solid thud as it lodged in the tree trunk, above and behind the bush.

Metua saka wit!!” – “Get out of the bush!!” Rukma shouted, this time in the Javanese dialect. Melati knew little Javanese but guessed that this was what it meant.

“Another – a bit lower,” said Praba after a few moments, lining up his arrow on the target. This time the thud was from an arrow embedded in the trunk just above the bush.

“The next arrows will be in the bush!” shouted Rukma in Javanese, motioning the two younger men to stop. “Come out and there will be no arrows!”

Through the chink Melati could just see the bushes. There was some movement now, and a man stepped out into the light. He looked about the same age as Praba: not young, but not yet middle-aged, with a swarthy build, and a thin beard. He was bare footed. The tribesman carried a large bow over one shoulder with a quiver of arrows at his back, and she could see a large scabbard for a knife, presumably with a blade of bronze. But the most striking thing to Melati was the cloth wrapped around his waist and upper legs – it was the Java kain. She had been told about the kain but this was the first time she had seen it.

“It’s a Java man!” she whispered to Sukma, whose eyes widened.

Pengin nganggo karo sampeyan!!” the man shouted across the river.

Tuhan!” Praba cursed under his breath.

Rukma, who spoke Javanese the best, translated for Agung:

“He says he wants to speak with us.”

“Why do Java behave like this?” asked his son.

“It’s their way,” Rukma explained. “I think there are others with him, but he has been sent as a messenger.”

“Are we going to have to shout at him!?” Praba scorned. “Let the dog come and speak with us – if he can cross the river!?”

The river level was unusually low, since it was the dry season and the tide had only recently turned. The water was cloudy with silt, only becoming clear further out past the mangroves. But the best fording point was further upstream, and they all knew what might be in the water.

“One less Java,” Agung grunted.

“He wants to talk,” Praba sneered. “So it’s up to him – has he got the guts?”

Rukma nodded his head faintly, as if reluctantly accepting the terms.

“We will wait on this side of the river!” Rukma shouted in Javanese, or at least that was Melati’s interpretation. “You can come here and speak with us!”

The man stepped to the river bank, looked up and down the waters thoughtfully, and then waded in. At first the level was up to his knees, and then towards the centre he sank up to his waist, then up to his chest using his arms now to help him move across. Praba pointed at something further downstream and grinned. The man kept wading steadily, with a resolute expression on his heavily-set face. Finally the level returned to his knees as he pulled his legs through the sucking silt of the river bed, until he stood on the bank not far away, muddy but dignified.

Agung stayed beside the hull and kept watching the other bank, ready with a loaded bow, while Rukma and Praba walked down the bank to meet him, with their bows pushed over their shoulders and quivers at their side. Melati watched the three men talking; the only words she caught were in Javanese, and these she didn’t know. Only now did she let Sukma look through the chink in the planks.

“He’s going now,” Sukma whispered after a while, allowing Melati to peer again through the chink.

The man started wading back as Rukma and Praba looked on. When the man got to knee-deep Rukma took his bow from his shoulders and nocked an arrow onto the bowstring, drawing it and aiming it towards the man’s back. Melati held her breath, not believing what she was seeing!

Glancing back, the man hastened his wading, looking around himself as he pulled out a long knife, holding it aloft. Rukma’s arrow hit something in the water, which twisted instantly into a fountain of water, and a serrated tail disappeared below the surface. Rukma launched another three arrows which erupted into fountains of water before the man made the far bank. Praba stood watching, with his bow still on his shoulder.

Standing now on the far bank, the Javanese tribesman pushed the knife into his scabbard and looked back. Melati thought he gave the slightest of nods, before turning to hide in the bushes again. A short time later the shadowy backs of three men left the bushes and promptly disappeared in amongst the nipa palms.

Rukma and Praba turned around and started walking back up the river bank towards the boat, both with serious faces. Melati took her eyes from the chink, breathing hard with the impact of what she had just seen. She stared at Sukma, who had just found the comb she had dropped.

“What were they talking about?” asked Sukma, as she started to comb her hair.

“I don’t know,” gasped Melati, not even daring to guess.

 

[][] [] *2* The Meeting

Wayan strode urgently towards the group coming from the boat. Rukma and Praba stopped to talk with him, while Agung shepherded the girls back to the village.

“Bahoi want a meeting,” Rukma told him.

“The Java dogs were spying on the boat,” Praba added. “But they saw the girls!”

Wayan looked into Rukma’s face, searching for more.

“Our daughters were combing their hair by the boat,” explained Rukma, putting a hand on his shoulder in the empathy of life-long friends. “Their men were watching, and then they sent a messenger.”

Wayan felt a terrible sense of foreboding growing upon him. The worried faces of the others seemed to confirm his worst fears.

“We’ll have a gathering of men tonight,” he said. “We have to make decisions.”

“We must talk with our wives before the gathering,” intoned Rukma.

Wayan nodded solemnly in agreement.

“How many days until the messenger returns?”

“Five,” said Rukma, holding up the extended fingers and thumb of a hand. “Their messenger will agree the time and place of the meeting.”

Five days? That’s not long, thought Wayan, and he began to pray for divine intervention.

“Our Sun Spirit must witness the meeting,” he said after a pause. “We have to stop the snakes hiding in the shadows!”

 

Later in the evening, the six men of the village met around the big night fire at their favoured spot by the open beach shelter, where the sand rose up onto the firmer pebbled soil between the beach itself and the village. It had become Likupang’s frequent venue for meetings and social gatherings. A place not far from the mouth of the river and yet close to the village so that the men could keep watch over their families, helped at night by the light of the fire. Some of the men sat with their backs to the fire, looking towards the village and keeping their night vision sharp. All of them kept their weapons nearby.

High above them, the splendid face of Father Moon gazed down. The balmy night air thrummed and the phosphorescent surf beat a slow steady pulse. But all of this went un-noticed.

Wayan threw a couple more coconut stalks on the fire, and then sat down again with his back to the flames. His stomach churned with a forlorn anxiety. They had to try and discuss the problem without arguing and shouting at each other. He decided to state it as simply as he could.

“Bahoi have called a meeting,” he said. “But we all know what the Java will want – they want the girls.”

“No!” Agung snarled. “Never!”

“They’re our sisters – they’re too young!” Bandri started, even though this would have been obvious to everyone around the fire. “We – ”

“We all know that!” Praba snapped as he paced up and down, glaring down at his younger brother sitting on the log. “And those Java dogs treat girls like animals – we all know that!”

“They’re the animals!” exclaimed Andhika. “They take every girl for putri.”

“Java want to – ”, Praba started.

“That’s enough!” Wayan cut in.

“They’re dogs!” muttered Praba under his breath, kicking another stalk onto the fire.

“Stop it now!” Wayan said more forcibly, thinking that at least the hatred of the Java united the tribe. “We can all curse the Java, and waste our breath – but we have to make decisions tonight.”

“You know what our wives and your mothers have told you,” Rukma said. “You know why the Javanese and Malay have kept apart.”

Wayan had tried to forget the bitter experience of his youth, when he and Rukma had to flee from the Java. They and their young wives had walked to Likupang, wanting to start new lives. They had tried to show their children a better way to live, but they had also made sure their sons knew the Java ways and spoke the Javanese dialect. And now, Wayan believed, they must try to behave in the better way.

“We don’t want our daughters to go to the Java – even if they were older,” stated Wayan. “We know how we feel about our daughters,” he added, his voice straining as those feelings of love threatened to overwhelm him.

All the men muttered their agreement, and for a while nobody spoke. The fire snapped and crackled in the background. Wayan turned to watch the flames licking around the stalks, eating the wood, while the smoke coiled upwards in freedom. He breathed in and out, deep and slow, trying to quell his aching heart.

“There are more Java villages in this area now,” Andhika said. “We should have moved before they cut us off from our tribes in Manado.”

The fire filled the silence for several moments.

Wayan regarded Andhika’s opinions highly. He was a good husband to his daughter, and a good forest man too, lean and fast-footed. Wayan also thought of him as clever and witty – when he wasn’t angry. And Wayan knew Andhika was right – he and Rukma should have moved the tribe before. But there was always a reason to stay, he thought. How could pregnant women walk that distance? And Likupang was a good place – they had been happy here – before the Java came.

“Andhy, you say wise words,” said Wayan, turning to look at Andhika. “But life was good here.”

“We have to move,” muttered Agung. “Manado is – ”

“That’s why we’re building the boat!” interrupted Praba. “To take everyone to Manado!”

Wayan took in a long deep breath, wishing Praba would show more patience. At least his elder son was committed to the big boat. Wayan let out his breath slowly, trying to remain calm.

“But the boat will take a long time,” Bandri pointed out. “We have to know it floats well.”

“Young brother – All of us have to work on it!” retorted Praba. “And we can’t take the tribe around the coast in the small boats!”

“Bahoi can’t touch us once we’ve built the big boat,” Wayan reminded them. “They only have small boats – we can hold them off from a big boat.”

“We could try a route near Klabat?” suggested Bandri.

His son’s intelligent eyes looked right into his own – in an unspoken bond between them. In the firelight, Wayan couldn’t make out the flecks of green but he knew they were there, just as he knew every other detail of his son’s face. Apart from some soft stubble, it was a youthfully smooth but open face, which Wayan thought betrayed the dreamer in him. His face held a meditative determination that Wayan could never quite define, elusive but strong. Looking now at his middle son he saw more than the best of Endah and himself. Secretly, he could not help but feel that his middle son was his most precious; Endah knew he felt this way, but he kept it from everyone else.

“The forest there is very thick,” explained Wayan. “And there are swamps and steep cliffs, river crocodiles and many snakes. There are bad spirits in the jungles around Klabat – tribes who eat outsiders.. Rukma and I have seen their stone heads.”

Bandri nodded his acknowledgement, but Wayan knew that his middle son didn’t believe in the bad spirits. With a heavy heart Wayan persisted.

“And you know how bad the jungle is for children,” he added.

His eldest son breathed in, sucking his lip, making that sound of his.

“Father is right,” Praba affirmed. “In the big boat we can shoot arrows at the Java before they get close.”

“And we don’t know how far we have to travel to find the other Malay tribes,” Rukma told them. “In the boat we could go a long way.”

“The Java can track you in the jungle,” muttered Agung, chucking more wood on the fire.

“I understand,” conceded Bandri. “The boat is going to be good, but until then we need to find out more about the people in Bahoi.”

“They have five or six men, and older boys too,” stated Praba. “We know what they look like.”

“But we need to find out their names and more about what each of them is like,” argued Bandri. “We can tell them our names so it could help to build more trust. If we want to live in peace with them we have to understand them.”

Praba pushed his hair off his face and scoffed:

“You can’t live in peace with the Java!”

The fire had taken a good grip of the wood by now, pushing up a great beard of flame. A tongue of heat reached out on one side of the fire, and some of the men shifted their seats. Wayan watched the flames, and thought about the wise insight offered by his middle son.

“We’ll try and find out more about them at the meeting,” he told them.

“The Java have their customs,” said Rukma “We can try to ask their names, but they probably won’t tell us.”

“But we have to try,” urged Bandri, to which both Wayan and Rukma nodded their acceptance.

“We’ve cut down the undergrowth around the village – past the stream – so they can’t get too close,” said Andhika. “We can do the same on the hill – there were footprints today.”

“Andhy’s right,” Agung grunted.

Bandri sighed, and waved his arm in the direction of the hill across the river.

“ We go up on that hill so often it’s difficult to tell who left the footprints. We should brush out everything to see if there are any new ones, and then -”

“We do that already!” Praba cut in, glowering disdainfully at his younger brother.

Bandri went on nevertheless:

“ We could rig some thin twine to see if it gets broken. If they see the twine, they’ll know that we’re aware of them, and they might -”

“Then they’ll think we’re afraid of them!” Praba snarled, shaking his head. And then with hacking motions he added “The dogs will keep away if we all have long knives!”

“Cut down the hiding places on the hill!” Agung repeated.

Wayan had heard all these things before. That hill on the other side of the river was both a blessing and a curse, he thought. It was a good look-out place, but the Java could also use it for watching the village.

“We must get enough bronze so everyone has a good knife,” insisted Praba. “Long knives – bigger than theirs!”

“We have to decide – tonight – if we send for help from our Kima tribe!” declared Wayan, almost shouting to get the point across. “To ask our Malay brothers for good men to help us.”

In the quiet that followed, Rukma explained:

“Two could go – but they only have five days to get there and back.”

“I’ll go,” offered Bandri.

Bandri was fast. Ever since they were kids Wayan had seen this. Praba was older by several years, but by the time they were old enough to argue, Bandri could outwit, dodge and outrun his bigger brother.

“And me,” said Andhika.

There was a murmuring of approval amongst the others; they were the best men to cover the distance in time. Wayan knew that too, yet he was greatly afraid of the risks they would be taking – indeed the risks Likupang would be taking. He looked at Rukma who nodded solemnly, disguising the feelings that Wayan knew he shared.

“That’s good,” Wayan said, with his heart in his mouth.

The fire crackled, gave out a few loud snaps, and collapsed inwards in a rustle of sparks. He breathed in the muskiness of the wood smoke billowing around them, before it was carried away on the sea-breeze.

 

Wayan stood by the low wall at the edge of the village, still staring into the forest where the path westward towards Manado began, his eyes lingering on the leaves that had stopped moving. The Sun Spirit had yet to be born this morning but his precious middle son and the husband of his daughter had already departed on their quest to find the Kima tribe.

Trekking through the forests and jungle had many dangers. He knew they would need to travel fast – running where the terrain allowed it. They must avoid the Java villages, and the Java tribesmen; they would need all their forest skills and they had only each other to depend on.

He felt the heartache this decision had caused, for everyone. He breathed in and out again, long and slow, delaying the moment he turned around to see the faces of the others standing behind him.

 

Being busy seemed the best way to cope with the strain of the day. The women and girls grouped together in the two strongest houses, weaving and twine-making, while the children helped or played. The men and Harta stayed in the village, strengthening the houses and preparing their weapons.

Harta, Melati and Sukma were told that Bandri and Andhika were travelling to meet their Kima relatives and would be back soon. Otherwise the adults agreed to provide no more details on the reasons for this.

 

That night, after much deliberation, Wayan and Rukma came to a decision as they kept watch by the night fire.

“Only you and I will meet them,” said Wayan, sitting on a log, feeling his back gently roast in the heat.

“Yes, using a boat is the best way,” agreed Rukma, sitting beside him. “They cannot hide on the water.. There’s too much distrust to do it on foot – it’s too easy for an ambush.”

“Alright – then everyone can see who’s coming.. And our men must stay in the village to look after the families,” Wayan said as he gazed at the two long shadows thrown out in front of them, feeling thankful that at least they now had a plan. “And our Sun Spirit will witness the meeting.”

 

Later in the night, Wayan paused outside his house and tapped on the wall several times. He heard a sleepy acknowledgement:

“Alright, I’m coming.”

After sliding back the bolts from inside, Harta opened the door.

“Sssh, quiet,” urged Wayan, and patted his son on the shoulder as he entered, before turning to pull shut the heavy door and bolting it again.

Harta groaned a little and collapsed back on his couch in the front room, falling asleep again almost instantly. Wayan listened outside the door of the first room until satisfied the occupants were asleep; he then crept to the second room, entered, and closed the door behind him. In the flickering candlelight he turned to look at his wife.

“When is the messenger coming back?” whispered Endah.

Wayan crouched down onto the edge of their low bamboo bed.

“In four days,” he whispered in reply.

“Did they ask Sukma?”

Endah moved over, as Wayan lay beside her. The bed creaked beneath his weight.

“No.. Just like we didn’t ask Mel. They’re too young to understand – we don’t want to frighten them.”

“Maybe they’re not going to ask for the girls?” his wife whispered hopefully.

Wayan wished that too, but his gut feeling was telling him something else.

“The messenger wouldn’t say what they wanted to talk about – but we understand their Java customs well enough – What else would they want?”

They lay silently for some moments.

“Wayan, please be careful not to anger them.. Maybe, if they have a good young man he can visit us and introduce himself properly, so the family get to know him. And if he will wait until they are older – and Melati or Sukma like him – then maybe they could marry here, in our village. Maybe that would be alright?”

Wayan couldn’t imagine that this would work, but he said nothing. In his mind the Java didn’t understand spiritual marriage; they just wanted putri – brides. His wife knew that too, but she was just meandering. And in any case, he well knew that she already had other plans.

“But what about Agung and Harta?” she said.

He turned on his side. The beeswax candle had almost burnt down, and in its fluttering light Wayan could see his wife’s face; her features over their years together had mellowed from the wild girl he knew in his youth. He smiled and kissed her lightly.

“We cannot decide all these things – we should see what the young people want when they’re ready.. I know you think Agung is a good match for Mel, but he’s..” Wayan paused, seeing his wife’s expression – they had rehearsed this discussion too many times. “Sssh – It’s true, Agung is a good man,” he whispered in a consolatory manner.

“You know why Agung’s like that!” she whispered urgently. “When Melati is older, he can be a good man for her.”

Wayan bit his lip and resisted the urge to disagree. This was not the time to decide.

“Sukma and Harta argue all the time – but they’re young,” he told her instead. “She calls him Hatty,” he added with an attempt at a chuckle.

Endah closed her eyes and turned away from him.

Wayan breathed in and out again, his heart heavy with responsibility for the family’s future.

“I will try to find a way when we meet the Bahoi seniors,” he assured her.

The candle-light spluttered out. The room fell into darkness, and now the night and its sounds permeated the bamboo walls. Wayan put his arm around his wife and he knew she was crying. After a while she seemed calm.

“Tomorrow, I can do some batik decorating with the girls on the cloth they’ve been weaving – that will keep them busy, so you can talk with the others.”

Wayan closed his eyes, still smelling the muskiness of the night fire.

“We’ll do that,” he answered. “Now let’s try and get some sleep – our sun is rising soon.”

 

Wayan roused himself as the first rooster crowed, and slipped out of the house even before the sun had risen. He had hardly slept.

He pushed shut the door and took the few steps across their nipa-leaf covered porch, and looked up at the dark blue sky, lighter now in the east. Standing there, still dozy, he listened for a while to the dawn chorus of birdsong.

There were no clouds and hardly any wind; the monsoon rains had yet to arrive. A clear hot day he thought. As the sky gradually brightened, he scanned the dark outlines of the two large islands which lay at the entrance of the broad bay; sometimes Wayan thought Bangka Island looked like it was floating out there on the sea, yet he knew it to be solid land. He took in a deep breath of ocean air, smelt its fresh saltiness, and stretched.

He looked around at the many coconut palms, their long thin trunks topped by splendid sprays of dark green leaves; his father had taught him that the Malay called the coconut ‘pohon kehidupan’ – ‘the tree of life’. Under the coconuts grew sea almonds and further back there were tamarind and lychee trees. Smaller fruiting shrubs and clumps of creamy-yellow flowers dotted the sandy soil towards the abundant forest.

Wayan loved this beautiful place they called home. A smile broke through. He knew how the plants gave his family food and building materials. Even the dark and muddy mangroves, haunted with evil spirits, were the nurseries for young fish that will grow to populate the bay waters and the coral reefs, blessing them with plentiful big fish to catch. Some plants had uses for dyes, for medicines and even for poisons. But because of the Java, everything had changed, and again he became more thoughtful.

With slow measured strides, he walked past the low vines with pink-veined trumpet flowers that sprawled over the high sand, and then down onto the beach. Here he paused and gazed at the gentle waves, rolling towards him until they felt the gentle slope of the beach where they curled with a liquid luster to fall into surf licking the sand at his feet.

Wayan sighed. Why can’t the Java leave them alone?! As the first bright sun rays peered over the eastern hills, he knelt on one knee and closed his eyes, murmuring the few words “Welcome our Spirit born from Mother Earth.” Before he stood up, he prayed again for the safe return of his son from the journey to Manado.

He reached the spot where he and Rukma had talked last night. The fire had died down, leaving a large black stain on the white sand, darker than a bruise on the fairest skin of a newborn child. Squatting down again on the coconut trunk, he thought of the many happy years the family had shared in this place. There had been difficult times too, and he tried not to think about the babies and children that had got ill and died.

Everyone in Likupang helped each other – that’s how it had to be, he thought. They were all part of the same family and had to depend on each other. Anyway, it was more important to remember the good times.

He thought of the Malay saying ‘Kayu buluh adalah sebagai cahaya sebagai bulu burung lagi kuat seperti kerang.’ – ‘The bamboo wood is as light as a bird feather yet as strong as a clam shell.’ He remembered how the growing family had made all of the nine griya-style native buildings and thanked the forest spirits for bamboo. Wayan surveyed the bamboo houses with their nipa palm roofs – yellow and umber coloured in the warm light of the morning sun. And he remembered again when he had picked up that bent old tree branch, and pushed it into the sandy soil.

Wayan was thankful for all these blessings, but the Java tribe had threatened his family ever since they settled on the other side of the mangrove swamps at Bahoi. Under his breath, he cursed them “That nest of vipers can shrivel in the sun!”

 

“Puteri is making your favourite stew,” Praba announced.

The sweet smell of smouldering coconut husks and bubbling stew wafted across from the covered kitchen as Praba’s wife prepared their early morning sarapan.

“Father, how did you sleep?”

Wayan looked up, aware now of his son’s presence.

“Father, come and lie down for a while,” Praba implored.

Wayan consented, got up and walked back with his son towards the house.

“They know the forest – Bandy will be alright,” Praba said as they walked, and Wayan put an arm around his son’s shoulders, something he had not done for years.

The old bamboo couch creaked and rocked beneath Wayan’s weight. Most of the couch was brightly lit by the early morning sun, but the angled long shadow from the porch roof shaded his upper body and eyes. Praba rolled a large log over close to the couch. Wayan smiled, watching the ease with which his son moved the heavy object. His son pushed back his hair and sat on the log, remarking:

“Everyone asks why I don’t fix it – but if I did it wouldn’t be as comfortable.”

Untung, a willowy boy of just six years, who was Praba and Puteri’s oldest child and his oldest grandson, appeared smiling beside him holding a pillow stuffed with feathers. This offering Wayan accepted, hugging and tickling the giver. Untung laughed joyously at his grandfather’s antics and tugged the goatee beard. Wayan pushed the pillow under his head, and the couch rocked some more as if it was about to collapse.

“Bandy stopped it moving with some twine – but I cut it off!” Praba jested with scornful humour.

Wayan laughed. That, he thought, summed up his two oldest sons – Bandri was smart and Praba was obstinate.

“You’re right,” Wayan admitted. “It’s very comfortable.”

In play, Untung grabbed hold of his father’s leg. Praba picked him up and flipped him onto his own back, pretending to be a wild pig. Father and son made silly grunting noises and gallivanted around the kitchen pretending to crash into things, knocking over a few pots. Puteri berated him“Anda gergasi!” – “You ‘oaf’!”, told him to get out of her way, and then looked across at Wayan with a big grin.

Wayan chuckled his response. He liked that his son was such a family man – teasing the kids and revelling in the childish games they wanted to play again and again. It was such a striking contrast to his muscular frame and strong set features – and the fierce attitude he had with the other men. Praba’s wild hair fell over his face as Untung grappled his father. All of Wayan’s three sons had inherited his thick black wavy hair, but Praba’s unruly thatch was brushed back frequently by his wife, who preferred it that way.

Puteri kept her own straight black hair immaculately groomed, usually clipping it back around her lustrous cheeks. Bright eyes quickly showed her feelings and the strong-willed personality within. She was not afraid to disagree with her husband, although for the most part they had a harmonious relationship. Wayan enjoyed Puteri’s no-nonsense candour and often ate his sarapan in her kitchen, since Endah had the tendency to lie-in until the sun was well risen. And today Endah and the girls were going with Ayu to Kasuma’s kitchen for the sarapan.

Wayan’s thoughts returned to Melati, his shy and thoughtful youngest daughter. He felt sure the Java tribe wanted the girls for putri to their tribesmen. If Likupang resisted such a proposal then the other tribe might try to take them by force. But he and Rukma were determined – if they tried to abduct the girls then they will fight!

Interrupting Wayan’s thoughts, Praba plonked Untung back onto the ground, and then came and perched himself back on the log, saying:

“I expect they’ll reach our Kima tribe tomorrow.”

“It’s a long way my son. They know if they can’t find them at Kima, they should come back as soon as they can.”

Again Wayan thought about walking the whole family towards Manado and abandoning their home here at Likupang, but that would be fraught with great danger. If they tried walking everyone through the forests, he knew the tribe could be tracked and ambushed. At least here in Likupang, they could defend themselves until they had made the boat.

The stew arrived, and very good it was too. But Wayan felt exhausted, and after eating the stew he slipped into a well-needed slumber.

 

The two girls and their mothers spread out flax and banana-fibre fabric on the wooden table in Kasuma’s front room.

“After we’ve practised on this, we can decorate the big sarong as a present for Ayu,” she explained.

The girls’ eyes glistened with expectation, especially since they both adored Sukma’s older sister.

“What we need are ideas for a pattern?” added Endah.

“Birds – yes birds!” Sukma chirped, jumping up and down in her excitement.

“What about flowers? – Ayu loves flowers,” Melati said with quiet enthusiasm.

“We could try both if you like,” said Endah. “And see what happens.”

The women showed them how to melt a pot of beeswax, and then dribble it over the fabric to make a pattern. They stepped back as the girls tried different ways of dabbing and rubbing in the wax as they made up designs. Endah indicated to Kasuma to join her out on the porch, leaving the girls absorbed in their craft.

“My heart is hurting,” she confided in Kasuma. “What makes the Java like that!?”

“The Javanese think in a different way,” Kasuma answered, keeping her voice down so that the girls couldn’t overhear.

“Java can’t think,” Endah seethed under her breath. “They just want!”

Kasuma gently pushed the porch door fully shut, after checking anxiously that their daughters were still occupied. “It’s their men,” she said gently. “I don’t expect the Javanese women want it that way.”

“You know they’ll be raped!” Endah mumbled bitterly, collapsing on the bench in the porch. “We must stop them – we must!”

“We will stop them – it won’t happen,” said Kasuma, sitting with an arm around Endah. “We must be strong for their sake.”

Endah continued mournfully about their daughters being forced to have the children of snakes and how it would be the end of their lives.

“You stay here for a while,” soothed Kasuma, struggling now to control her own emotions. “I’ll look after the girls.”

She knew this meltdown had happened before, and that given time Endah seemed to talk herself out of it. For now it was more important to Kasuma that both their young daughters were protected from such talk, and so she steadied herself, put on a calm face and slipped back into the front room.

“Now the wax has gone hard, we can dye the material,” Kasuma explained to Melati and Sukma. “But the waxed bits won’t get any colour.. Like this..”

They soaked the fabric in a shallow wooden barrel with blue plant dye, leaving it to take up the colour. In fun, the girls splashed some of the dye at each other. Harmless blue splodges landed on their pretty, laughing faces and down their simple sarongs.

Kasuma sighed inwardly, she loved them both so dearly, feeling thankful that they appeared to have forgotten about the fright they had when the messenger appeared. She smiled as they leant over the barrel, trying to see the fabric soak up the dye and removing falling trusses of hair with absent-minded flicks of their wrists. The girls were both so young and vibrant, moving in the entrancing way that only healthy young girls do.

Nobody in Likupang thought such young people were ready for marriage. Malay traditions expected that the couple who wanted to get married asked both parents first, and then the seniors and the tribe were consulted before the community marriage blessing. At least she thought that was how it should be.

Kasuma felt a deep revulsion that anybody could think girls were eligible for ‘marriage’ at such a childish and immature age and she knew that undeveloped girls can die in childbirth. When she was young her family had protected her from the Javanese, but Kasuma had friends who had been taken by the Javanese, very young friends. She loathed their practise of using women and girls as property to be bartered with or stolen, where second or a third ‘brides’ were seen as a mark of status, and where brides can be taken in combat. She had every reason to think that Javanese brides are forced to accept whatever fate befell them, and the idea of it tore and wrenched at her heartstrings.

Kasuma suffered her thoughts as she worked with the two innocent girls. She and Endah had done their best to guide the girls in the ways of sex, and in the ways of men without dismaying them. The girls had been brought up to respect their parents and the others in the tribe, and to respect the spirits. What right did the Java have to ruin all that was good?!

After some time the three of them put the material in fresh water. They heated it up to melt the wax, and then rinsed it clean in more hot water to reveal the batik decoration.

Sila, sila” – “Please, please,” bubbled Sukma. “Now can we do Ayu’s sarong?”

“Not today – we need a bit more practise,” answered Kasuma, needing a rest. “But later.”

“Do we get rings?” Sukma asked, toying with her mother’s large ear-rings.

Kasuma hugged and kissed her daughter.

“These are too heavy – you wouldn’t want these.”

“But how did you get them?”

“When I was your age, my mother made holes,” said Kasuma, gently pinching each of their earlobes.

“Did it hurt?” asked Melati, as Sukma made a show of saying “Owwch!”

Kasuma nodded, and put her arms around both girls.

“You two were born here,” she told them, reminding herself how they had decided to do things differently in Likupang and thinking that the girls looked better with hair decorations. “And we don’t want you to get long ears like me and Endah.”

Melati smiled and felt the weight of the solid bronze rings.

“Do you like them?” Kasuma asked.

“They look good on you,” answered Melati tactfully.

 

When Wayan woke the sun glared down from directly overhead. His deep sleep had rejuvenated him, although waking at this time of day disorientated him for a short while. From the shade of the porch, he looked out across the crisp white beach and the deep-turquoise bay towards the distant islands. Wayan never tired of this stunning view. He blinked his eyes again.

“Did you sleep well father?”

Joyah smiled down at him as she cradled her baby. His eldest daughter had been sitting in the porch waiting for when he awoke.

“Yes.. Feel much better,” he mumbled sitting up on the couch. Wayan smiled appreciatively at her and then enquired: “How is she now?”

The little girl, Murni, had been sickly.

“A bit better today, but she still has a fever.”

Wayan put his little finger under the baby’s chin.

“Very hot,” he muttered, and then added positively: “Kusama knows best what to do. I think she uses fruit and honey – but ask her which fruit to use.”

Joyah smiled again. Wayan knew so well how she smiled readily and often, seeing most usually the better side of a situation. His daughter’s face glowed when she was happy. But he knew that on the occasion she was upset, which could be easily triggered, she had a temper and then a storm of anger passed over her expressive features – although her foul mood would usually pass as quickly as it had arrived. Wayan couldn’t help but still think of her as the most frivolous of his children – even though she was a diligent mother of two children.

With her free hand, Joyah poured out calamansi flavoured water into a bamboo mug for Wayan and the others. In the shade of the porch, Puteri, Praba, Rukma and Ayu made themselves comfortable on the various seats arranged around the bamboo table.

The two large muscular men seemed even bulkier compared to the graceful young woman who sat between them. The men had taken it upon themselves to ensure her safety since her husband Bandri was away from the village. Today, Ayu had put her long hair up into a simple bunch, revealing her neat untanned ears above her slender smooth neck. However, despite her radiant loveliness, she showed no sign of assumption or pretention, but rather an air of youthful confidence. Wayan could not help but smile at her, not only because she had married his dearest son, but also through his natural appreciation of feminine beauty.

As the father of her husband, Wayan contented himself with admiring her nose. It may seem strange he sometimes thought to himself, but he did so like Ayu’s lovely nose! He always thought it was the most perfect nose he had ever seen. Placed so well between those wondrous eyes, just slightly curved upwards, Ayu’s nose never wrinkled but just changed its shape a little to compliment her expression. Wayan pondered whether it was more likely she had been blessed with her nose from Kasuma’s side of the family, since Rukma had a big nose.

“Agung and Harta are watching out,” Rukma said, grinning.

Wayan knew that his good friend’s craggy face wrinkled in amusement as he thought about the contrast between their two sons: Rukma’s imposingly muscular but introverted son and his own skinny, adolescent and opinionated youngest son. But at least Harta would never argue with Agung – he would listen and do as he was told.

The children are all together with Mel and Suk,” Ayu informed him, with an amused tone. “They’re all trying to do some batik now.”

Wayan glanced across at the house next door from where excited laughter emanated. His wife was sitting on the porch, and she smiled back. Fresh from a sound sleep, Wayan felt buoyed up with new energy.

“That’s good.”

“We have a plan now for the meeting,” Rukma began.

“Yes, we two are going to meet them in one boat,” Wayan confirmed to everyone, pointing out across the bay. “Out there – far enough out, so that we can see that they’re also coming in one boat.”

“A clear day would be best,” said Rukma. “But we’ll wait until the men are back.”

“Maybe today they’ll find the Kima?” Ayu said. She laid her hand on Joyah’s arm who nodded in hopeful confirmation.

“I hope so,” answered Wayan, trying to offer them some reassurance. “But they have far to go – then they have to try and find good men before they return.”

“If they’re not back in time what do we tell the messenger?” Praba asked, pushing his hair back in uneasy contemplation.

“We tell him that you two will meet them – in the boats – but we need an excuse,” said Puteri in a firm tone. “It may not be true what we tell them, but as long as it delays the meeting.. We could tell them that one of you stood on a stone fish or something – not badly – just that you need a few days to recover?”

Wayan did not like dishonesty and deception like this, but on this occasion he realised that this sort of thinking was necessary.

“Something like that,” he said. “Yes, I think we could say something like that.”

 

And so the days passed as Likupang waited for the mens return. Everyone stayed close together in the village. Water was collected from the stream behind the village, but no-one ventured out for hunting or fishing.

Agung had several enclosures for brush turkeys and pigs. These pigs were pig-like deer with large curled tusks or ‘babirusa’, sometimes called ‘pig-deers’ or ‘wild pigs’. Brush turkeys were killed and there were plenty of fruit and coconuts available. And they planned to kill a pig when the men returned.

 

On the fifth day, in the last of the twilight, Bandri and Andhika did indeed arrive back. Harta had heard the whistles from the men as they approached, and ran to get Ayu and Joyah. The two young men were evidently fatigued but happy to be back. As they stepped over the low smooth walls into the village, the women greeted them with cries and hugs of delight. The other men slapped their backs in greeting and children danced.

Wayan’s heart filled with thanks as he saw the two men, apparently uninjured.

“The Kima tribe has moved,” Andhika panted as Wayan joined them.

Andhika wiped the dripping beads of sweat from his forehead with his hand as he spoke, his curls of black hair now dangling wet and long. He had been scratched by vegetation, bitten by insects and sucked by leeches during the journey; his lean body showed smears of his own blood. The stubble on Andhika’s familiar face had grown into a small beard on his chin which gave him an interestingly wise countenance.

Wayan grasped Andhika’s proffered wet hand in welcome.

“Did you meet any of our tribe?”

Andhika shook his head.

“Somewhere beyond Manado – not sure,” he said, still panting after the exertion of the long arduous run and then the final sprint in the fading light.

And now Wayan could turn to his dearest son, smeared with dirt and blood but gloriously alive.

“Father,” his son announced, before explaining between breaths:

“We found the Kima village – but it was deserted. – There’s a Java village nearby – and another at the headland.. Some men went by us.. We were lucky to see them, without them seeing us – we followed them and saw the villages.”

Pleased and relieved to have his dear son back, Wayan did not dwell on this disappointing news. Instead he hugged his son.

“You’re in good time. You need a rest and a good meal.”

They walked into the village together.

“Did you find any Malay?” asked Wayan now, when they were away from the women and children – fearing that he already knew the answer.

“Father, we found two Malay,” answered Bandri. “An old couple living on their own – but it’s not good news.. They told us that the Malay were moving south along the coast.”

“What about them?”

“They had stayed with a few others – but the others had gone.”

“Where did they go?”

“They didn’t know,” replied Bandri, with a sad movement of his eyebrows. “One day they didn’t come back from hunting.”

 

Over the feast of roasted pig, the two men described their journey in more detail. They had been travelling by day and night, sleeping for only the few hours when there was no moonlight. Wayan knew that their journey through the forests would have taken many times longer if they had been travelling at a normal pace. Again he pondered the problem. Even if they tried to walk the whole tribe, they would have to find an even longer route inland, away from the Java tribes. Walking the whole family through the jungles would be too risky, he decided. The big boat will still be the safest way to move everyone south along the coast until they could find the other Malay.

After the women and children had retired to the houses, the men held another gathering around the night fire.

“It was a wasted journey,” grumbled Praba. “We have no help.”

“Your brother and Andhy found out something we needed to know,” Wayan responded, trying to check any arguments before they started. “We owe them our thanks.”

Agung slapped Bandri heartily on the back, and the others, including Praba, slapped their legs to raise a clatter of thanks to the two runners.

“Knowing things helps,” confirmed Rukma philosophically. “We needed to know it – even if it was a bad thing to know.”

“I will meet the messenger tomorrow,” stated Praba, almost as if it was necessary to recover from the correction by the two senior tribesmen. “With Rukma.”

This was something Wayan and Rukma had been discussing at length. Bandri spoke Javanese as well as Rukma, and they wanted his opinion of the Java messenger. And if anyone could charm the Java, it was Bandri.

“Yes, son,” said Wayan. “But we wish Bandri to accompany you.”

Before Praba could object, Rukma intervened:

“We need to meet the Bahoi seniors on their own – so the messenger should not be able to speak to the seniors in our tribe.”

There was a pause before there came a muttering of agreement.

“If the weather is good tomorrow, then in the afternoon Rukma and I will go out and meet them,” explained Wayan, pleased at the arrangements so far. “Everyone else stays in the village.”

“I can take a boat out,” declared Praba. “They need to know that we will protect you.”

“We need good men to stay in the village,” Rukma said. “They may try to draw us away during the meeting. We need the families all in the two strong houses close together.”

“We’ll soak the roofs with water so they can’t be set alight,” said Andhika, and everyone muttered in agreement.

“You must take this,” Wayan said, removing the sheath with its long knife from around his waist and handing it to Praba. “You can use it better than me.”

Praba hesitated to accept the knife.

“Fathers.. You must take weapons in case they attack.”

Wayan first looked at Rukma, and then replied honestly to the younger men.

“If they see we have weapons, they’ll not trust us.”

“But we don’t trust them, and you need to protect yourselves,” insisted Praba. “You can hide small bows in the boat, and take poison for the arrows.”

“We’ll keep our boat away from theirs,” Rukma assured the men.

Bandri came and sat down on the log between the two fathers.

“There’s a chance that they’ll threaten you, or they have a plan that we haven’t thought about,” explained Bandri. “You may need something to defend yourselves.”

Agung had been hunched without speaking, with his face almost hidden behind long straggly hair, but now he and Bandri together offered their fathers each a nipa fisherman’s hat. This common headwear is used to ward off the glare of the sun, but inside each of the broad conical hats had been concealed a bronze knife. The two identical knives, made from the same model, had short strong blades which were about the length of a woman’s hand. As the hats and knives were inspected with appreciation, Bandri continued:

“Sitting in the boats you can’t threaten them with these small knives, and they can’t see them.. But if they get too close – then they could be useful.”

Wayan felt a surge of warmth that the young men had thought about all of this, and that Agung had made such knives. He looked at Rukma who was also visibly moved, and then he looked around at the expressions of the men, appreciating their concerns with a full heart.

“I understand – thank you,” Wayan said, passing the sheath with his long knife to Praba. “We accept the hats.”

“Yes – and we will hide small bows,” added Rukma, as the other men all produced a clatter of approval.

 

As arranged, the messenger from Bahoi reappeared the next morning. The Javanese tribesman walked out of the forest to stand outside the low stone wall around the village; he treated the wall as a boundary although it had been built as a deterrent to snakes and crocodiles. Bandri noticed that on his shoulders he bore the Javanese healed skin-scars of manhood: three scars on each shoulder. He had black tightly curled hair with a thin dark beard, and his heavy-set face held a stern expression.

Praba and Bandri walked out and stood opposite him, on the other side of the wall. All three men carried bows over their shoulders, while Praba and the messenger also carried knives at their waists. The three men were about the same height, the messenger wearing the Javanese kain, while the Malay brothers wore kathoks.

Seng luweh tuwo kita takon yen sampeyan bisa ketemu dina iki?” – “Our seniors ask if you can meet today?” said the messenger with a heavy Javanese dialect, just about understandable to the Malay men.

“Please sit with us, and drink a little?” offered Bandri immediately in the Javanese dialect.

This break from tribal protocol produced an awkward silence for some moments as the men stood either side of the low wall about two paces apart. Praba sucked his lip uneasily.

“It is for our seniors to talk first,” the man replied flatly.

“Our seniors will talk with yours,” stated Praba, maintaining a more usually accepted manner between tribes.

“My name is Bandri. What is your name?”

The Bahoi tribesman looked coldly at the young man who had asked him the question in Javanese. Bandri calmly looked back at him, deciding to give him time to make up his mind. There was an unpleasant pause, until the man uttered his name as if it were an irrelevance for the Malay men to know.

“Yuwa.”

Bandri nodded his head in appreciation, but before he could respond Praba said formally “The meeting can be in boats.”

The man called Yuwa stared at Praba for a few moments.

“In boats?!” he said.

The brothers both nodded.

“Two senior men from each tribe will meet in boats out there,” said Bandri, pointing towards the bay. “The sea is calm today.”

The man’s eyes followed Bandri’s finger, and he breathed in thoughtfully.

“How many boats?” he asked, turning to stare back at them again.

“One boat for your two seniors and one boat for our two seniors.. Half-way where both villages can see – with no other men,” said Praba, taking care with the specific requirements.

The man repeated the arrangement to make sure that he understood, and paused a while, studying both men until he appeared to reach a conclusion.

“That is agreed,” the man said. Then he briefly touched his chest with his right hand as he added “When the sun mother has passed the zenith,” turning to raise the right arm indicating the angle at mid afternoon. “Our seniors will meet this afternoon on the bay.”

The brothers nodded, sealing the agreement.

Saya ingin puak anda segala berkat.” – “I wish your tribe every blessing,” the man said, giving the formal farewell expression in Malay.

Bandri replied in the Javanese dialect:

Kita pengin taler panjenengan saben berkah.” – “We wish your tribe every blessing.”

The Bahoi tribesman and the two Likupang tribesmen nodded again formally at each other. The man stepped back a pace. Just as he turned to leave, Bandri said quietly but clearly in the Javanese dialect:

Matur nuwun, Yuwa.” – “Thank you, Yuwa.”

The man stopped for a moment, and looked back. He gave a slight nod of his head towards Bandri, and then walked into the forest. The brothers watched him go.

“You were too friendly,” grumbled Praba in annoyance. “Now they’ll think we’re weak!”

“It doesn’t make us weaker by knowing his name,” replied his younger brother.

 

After a mid-day meal, Wayan and Rukma prepared their chosen boat. They carried a supply of fresh water and wild honeycomb to maintain their stamina.

Two small bows and their bamboo arrows had been hidden in the hull of the small fishing boat, screened carefully from view by thin peelings of the niaouli paper bark tree. The arrow heads had been coated in a sticky mixture of Antiaris seed juice and viper venom; if an arrow embeds itself to dose the victim with its poison, the outcome will be seizure of the nerves and muscles, including the heart. These preparations had been done out of sight of the women and children.

With practised ease, both men pushed the small boat with its bamboo outriggers through the rolling surf. Wayan leapt into the bow, and Rukma jumped into the stern a moment later. Once they had paddled out beyond the surf line, they pulled on loose fitting fabric fisherman’s tops, since the scalding sun can be malicious on the open water. Finally they checked and donned their fisherman’s hats.

The whole village watched them from the beach, wishing for their safe journey, many murmuring prays to the spirits of the sea. The families gathered into the houses, and the two seniors set off across the bay to meet those from the Bahoi tribe.

“Take your time and save your strength,” Rukma advised his friend.

Many years of paddling had made it an almost sub-conscious activity for Wayan, and so he made the effort to relax. Even so, the men made easy progress out beyond the line of mangrove swamps towards the middle of the expansive bay. They pulled the blades almost lazily through the pristine green water, clear to the bottom of sea grass and coral – waters bright with the efflorescence of life and tints of azure.

Looking back, they could see Praba standing by his boat and the other men on the porches of the two houses near the beach. And now, across the tremulous blue of the bay they could see another boat coming from the direction of Bahoi, still too far away to make out its occupants. Gradually the two boats drew closer together. The buildings of both villages could now be seen in the far distance, perched on the edge of the blue bay, in front of the emerald-green forest which flowed up into the mountains behind.

As the other boat drew closer, Wayan and Rukma could see that both of their seniors had distinctly large beards. They were not wearing hats or fisherman’s tops. Both had tight curly hair, and were possibly father and son. They had seen both these men at a distance before. The eldest one with greying hair had a barrel-like chest and looked immensely strong. The taller one was also muscular and perhaps a little older than Yuwa, the messenger. Both had the Javanese tribal shoulder marks.

“That’s the big one and that tall one,” said Rukma quietly. “My Javanese is a bit better – I’ll start the talking if you like?”

Wayan was glad of the offer. Rukma always seems so calm and controlled. Wayan briefly wondered whether he trusted his friend better than himself.

“Thank you,” he replied. “Out here our Sun Spirit will see everything.. She will see if they try any deceit.”

As they waited for the other boat to come within talking distance, the two men from Likupang shuffled around a little in their seats. Pre-occupied with the desire for the Sun Spirit to see everything, Wayan removed his hat and pulled off his fisherman’s top to lay them down in the bottom of the boat. Rukma watched his friend without comment. The two small boats closed to within a dolphin’s leap, becoming stationary, yet rising and falling on the swell in the middle of the vast blue waters of the bay.

Rukma and Wayan had decided to follow Bandri’s example and try to exchange names early in the conversation.

Jenengku Rukma lan iki Wayan.” – “My name is Rukma and this is Wayan.”

Iku apik kanggo duwe rapat.” – “It is good to have a meeting,” announced the big man in a deep gravelly voice. This was the usual greeting when tribes met.

“It is good to meet you,” said Rukma, returning the customary greeting.

“We share the fishing in the bay and the hunting in the forests,” the big man said immediately, his voice betraying little emotion.

Wayan realised that the big man was trying to avoid telling them their names. However he said nothing and instead focused on studying the Bahoi seniors as their boat stayed parallel to their own, about five paces distant, rocking in the mild swell. The taller, younger man was directly opposite him. The Java men both wore kains made from wrappings of cloth. Wayan couldn’t see any weapons, but he knew that such things could easily be concealed.

The big-chested man had a thick black beard which was greying, as was his chest hair. His solid face had many wrinkles where it was free of hair. Even though he was of advancing years he looked very sturdy and determined. When he greeted them he had appeared to smile, but it was difficult to gauge his demeanour. The smile seemed half-hearted, possibly because he was attempting to hide his rotten teeth.

The other man showed little emotion either and had said nothing, but looked steadily at the two men from Likupang with eyes that were so dark-brown that they appeared obsidian black. He was also strong jawed, having a roundish face with a broad nose. His facial hair was jet black as was his thick chest hair. Wayan found his manner unsettling.

No-one made an overt movement, apart from holding their paddles to gently maintain their position in the water. Apart from the banal words of greeting, it seemed as if there was no noise apart from the placid slapping of the water against the boat hulls and outriggers.

Rukma replied to the last statement:

“We are both blessed with many fish and good forests.”

It appeared the big man had decided now to progress the conversation.

“This is my son.. One day he will be the leader of our people.”

There was a pause but neither Rukma nor Wayan made a comment.

“I have another good young son, who is fit and strong.. He also wishes to find a bride,” the big man said in a concise manner.

They had expected something like this, but still Wayan’s heart sank with the cold realisation that their fears had come true. Wayan heard an intake of breath from Rukma before he said without commitment:

“Every man hopes to find a good wife.”

Kita bisa kurban ningkahan antarane lanang apik lan Badhak wadon apik.” – “We can offer marriage between our good males and your good females,” the big man pronounced.

To the Malay men, using the words ‘lanang’ and ‘wadon’ as ‘male’ and ‘female’ made the conversation sound as if they were describing a transaction of property, filling Wayan with a renewed disgust at the traditional Java approach to this most loving and spiritual of unions. He couldn’t help but grimace.

Seeing the reaction of the Malay men, the big man added:

“They will have much good fortune.”

A short silence followed.

“We have no unmarried women of a good age,” Rukma stated calmly.

Ana telung badhak wadon enom lare.” – “There are three childless females,” the big man stated blandly.

The stark frankness of the statement chilled both Malay men. Wayan remembered his wife’s advice and managed to hold his temper, but he now felt compelled to speak.

“All the women are married,” he said firmly. “The girls who are not married are too young.”

His words hung in the air between the boats for a short while, until the big man stated in an insistent manner:

“We have strong males, and you have unmarried females.. It can be a good match.”

Wayan could contain himself no longer, especially at the dreadful idea of their sweet, young daughters being considered a possible match for such men. The mature man in the boat opposite had become uglier with every passing moment. Looking directly at that man who had not yet spoken, Wayan said clearly and firmly:

“The unmarried females are not going to marry anybody for many years.” He paused, and then went on to say “They are much too young for you.”

At that point, the man opposite raised himself up to his full height, and stood in the boat. His body hardly moved, even though the small boat was shifting on the unpredictable waves of the bay. It appeared to be a display of his physical presence and athletic ability. He glared down haughtily upon the seated Wayan.

Such arrogant impudence fired Wayan’s temper. Watched with intense concern by his friend, within a couple of heartbeats Wayan too stood up in the boat – with surprising ease for a man of his years. He felt his whole being crammed with emotion: love for the girls and hatred for anyone who threatened them.

Standing, both balancing skillfully in the small boats, they glared at each other and their eyes met. They were about the same height, although Wayan was many years older. Armed with conviction Wayan glared straight back. Unable to withstand the penetrating gaze, the bearded man broke off the exchange and sat down again in his boat, apparently subdued, defeated by a pair of unflinching eyes.

Neither had uttered a word.

Wayan sat down silently, his mind burning with indignation. How dare these heartless thugs impose themselves on the lives of their darling daughters?! For long moments there was an unpleasant gulf of silence between the boats, until Rukma finally stated the Javanese expression between friendly tribes:

Kita pengin taler panjenengan saben berkah.” – “We wish your tribe every blessing.”

The big man had been glaring alternately at his son and at Wayan. Now he fixed his eyes on Rukma. No verbal response came from either of the Bahoi men.

“We respect tribes have different customs,” said Rukma steadily. “And we ask you to respect the customs of our tribe.”

The angered look on the big man’s face slowly resolved itself until finally he nodded his head in Rukma’s direction, saying:

“I respect that you saved our tribesman.”

Rukma nodded in acknowledgment, but chose to say nothing.

Kita pengin taler panjenengan saben berkah.” – “We wish your tribe every blessing,” said the Bahoi father, still looking at Rukma.

Almost immediately after this exchange, the senior tribesmen from Bahoi turned their boat about and started the return journey towards their village.

 

As they paddled back to Likupang neither man spoke for a while, even though the other boat was out of earshot. Wayan relived the short meeting in his mind.

“It ended too soon – we needed to know more about them,” he said in exasperation and regret. “That was my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault – it was their attitude.”

Wayan valued Rukma’s steadfast and wise friendship more than he could ever express.

“But I angered them – and you saved us,” he said. “I’ve never had a better friend.”

They continued to paddle. Wayan cursed under his breath as he recalled the senior talking about ‘three childless females’.

“They must have been watching the village to know about Ayu,” he said.

Behind him, he heard Rukma sniff as he paddled, and Wayan bit his tongue mumbling “I’m sorry.” He thought about his sweet young daughter and that disgusting hairy man. His stomach retched. Expecting to vomit, he coughed over the side – some stuff came up but he swallowed it down and reached for the water container, saying:

“He called them ‘childless females’.. How disgusting to speak like that!”

“My friend, I’m sorry too,” Rukma replied. “It’s the way so many men think.. For them women and girls are for sex and getting strong sons, and those sons can get more ‘females’.. For them it’s simple – that’s your success in life. Sons get everything – men own women – women have no say.”

Wayan found it hard to comprehend Rukma’s calm, philosophical assessment. Or maybe he thought it was just hard to accept. Yes, he knew what lust for a girl felt like – if they’re not your own daughter or sister. But he still couldn’t understand why the Java men didn’t want to understand women and girls better. Why didn’t they want to find out more about them and look after them better. What was wrong with loving them, and being loved?

“Have they ever loved a daughter?” he said out loud. “Surely they would understand why we said ‘No’ to them?”

“I don’t know,” said Rukma. “Last dry season I saw that tall one fishing in a boat with a girl – I thought it could be his daughter.”

Wayan turned to look at his friend who stopped paddling too.

“We just don’t know enough about them.” Rukma said almost apologetically. “Maybe it was his sister?” After a pause, while Wayan continued to stare at him, he added “Unless it was a bride?”

Wayan cursed under his breath and turned back, feeling numb. The two men started paddling again. As they drew closer to the shore, Wayan asked for his trusted friend’s advice:

“What do we tell them in Likupang?”

“We tell them exactly what happened,” Rukma replied as he continued to paddle. “But I think it’s best that we forget about you and he standing up in the boats.”

“I think you’re right, we shouldn’t mention it – our wives will both worry about it,” confirmed Wayan, and then he added sardonically: “It was my fault – I should have asked him what his name was.”

Rukma laughed, and slapped his friend on the back. Wayan laughed a little too, yet inwardly he regretted not handling it better. Somehow he should have focused on finding out more about them. He prayed that their sons will know better how to deal with the Java tribesmen in the future.

Praba, Bandri and Agung came down to meet them on the beach.

“It’s good you didn’t need the weapons,” Bandri declared, as the three men waded in to meet the boat in the surf.

“It was better to be prepared,” Wayan said. “They weren’t friendly – but there were no threats.”

“What did they want?” asked Praba, holding the boat steady.

“They were looking for brides. We told them the girls were too young for marriage, and they went away,” said Rukma, getting out of the boat.

“And keep away!” grunted Agung, while Praba cursed: “Filthy dogs!”

Bandri offered his arm to his father as he stepped out of the boat.

“What were they like?”

Wayan could now see the women and children coming down the beach to join them.

“We’ll tell you more later.”

 

In the late afternoon warmth, Rukma and Kusama joined Wayan and Endah for a meal on their porch. Every word that had been exchanged in the meeting had been examined and dissected. For the parents it was so very important to understand what the intentions were of the Bahoi tribesmen, and whether their daughters might be in continuing danger. Indeed, they needed to know whether any of the family could be in danger as they looked after the girls.

“So when they left, you’re sure the oldest senior gave his blessings to our village?” asked Kusama.

“Yes.. His son never said a word,” said Rukma. “It seemed that his father made all the decisions.”

The conversation seemed to be repeating itself. Wayan’s attention wandered as he looked up at the large flock of fruit bats passing overhead; sedately flapping, furry-brown shapes against the pale orange of an approaching sunset.

“Do you think we can trust the word of the father?” Endah asked yet again, insisting on reassurance.

“Dear wife, I believe so,” replied Wayan again, praying to all the spirits for this to be true. “But I don’t like the look of his son.”

 

The men gathered around the beach fire in the evening, this time drinking the alcoholic toddy. No physical conflict had ensued from the refusal of the offer by the Bahoi tribe, but anger had been stoked.

“You see – the Java dogs must have been looking over our village!” fumed Praba.

“I want to know how he said ‘three childless females’.. Maybe it was a problem with dialect or something?” Bandri inquired more calmly, but with concern etched in his voice.

Ana telung badhak wadon enom lare,” said Rukma, and then added: “We both heard it clearly. They could only mean Ayu, Suk and Mel.”

“But we didn’t use any names for the girls,” explained Wayan, looking his son in the eyes and understanding how difficult it must be for him to know that the Java wanted Ayu too. “We told them the unmarried women were very young girls.”

“It’s difficult to understand why they think such young girls would be good mothers – even if they survive childbirth,” Bandri said. The others listened, and even Praba didn’t interrupt. “Women need to be ready to have children – having children straight after marriage can be too soon. They’re only thinking about girls for sex and status.” Aware now of the others attention, Bandri surmised after a hesitant pause “They’re not respecting them as people.”

The others said nothing for a few moments. Wayan breathed in and held his breath, full of fatherly love, yet full of hate for those that threatened his son’s future. Praba broke the silence, speaking again with barely suppressed anger:

“You already told them that the girls were very young, didn’t you?”

“We made that clear,” said Wayan.

Praba took another swig of toddy, and then coiled his hands into fists which he held squeezed between his knees, swaying a little as he spoke through gritted teeth:

“Then the dog said their ‘strong males’ can be a good match for our ‘females’?!”

Rukma nodded, if a little reluctantly. Wayan bit his tongue and said nothing; he disapproved of the toddy and usually would have chewed his son’s ears off for drinking so much, but right now he felt tempted to break his own abstinence.

“Disgusting!” Agung growled with venom, spitting into the fire. He got up and paced down the beach muttering, then picked up a large stone and flung it forcefully out to sea.

“He’s the reason they keep away,” Andhika muttered.

“They keep away because we all work together,” insisted Bandri.

“The dogs in Bahoi will keep away from the big boat!” Praba proclaimed vehemently.

“We must keep building that boat,” Wayan stated as calmly as he could. “Rukma asked them to respect our customs – and their senior leader wished our tribe every blessing.”

“If we can trust his Java word?!” seethed Praba.

Wayan felt jaded now. He had been absorbing these visceral emotions for days on end. What more could he do? During the past few exchanges his mind had settled as he inhaled the comforting muskiness of the wood smoke. At that moment he saw Praba taking off the sheath with the long knife so that he could return it.

“Keep the knife my son,” he said, holding up a hand. “I’m not ready for it yet.”

 

~~~~~

 

After the rainstorm during the past few days, the early morning sun over the eastern hills shone bright and watery. The skies were clear again and the wind had dropped, although the sound of the surf still drowned out the dawn chorus. Wayan emerged onto his porch, having slept well. He looked around. A beautiful day he thought.

As he ambled past the house of his middle son, he caught the faint sounds of a young woman’s soft giggling. It brought back intensely warm memories of his early married days, and injected a happy spring into his step as he walked briskly onto the beach to wet his bare feet in the surging foam.

It was low tide and some scattered pieces of jetsam lay on the damp sand: coconut husks, coral pieces, shells, some leaves, seaweed, wood of various sizes and shapes. Wayan also saw a couple of shiny sea sponges which had come adrift from their holdfasts on the sea floor. Smiling, he picked up the sponges and walked up to Puteri’s kitchen where he could smell native coffee on the brew as she prepared their sarapan.

“What are those, Grampa?” Untung asked.

“Ah well, that’s a question!.. I think they’re plants from the sea.”

“But your uncle Bandri thinks they’re made from small animals,” Puteri said, as she poured out Wayan’s steaming black drink.

“Can I see?” The boy held out his hands. “What’s inside?”

Wayan broke open the stiff, dark, glossy, wet object.

“You see, it looks a bit like coconut husk inside,” he explained to the young boy.

“Why have you got it, Grampa?”

“This..” And then he got up to find a soft brown bath sponge “This is what we use it for!”

“Eeeeah – it’s all slimy.”

“But when it dries, and we wash it out – we get a sponge!”

“And does the soap come from the sea?”

Wayan thwacked his hand down on the table.

“Aaah – Bandri’s soap!.. Well, that is ‘something else’!”

Wayan and Puteri laughed.

“That!.. I don’t think I should tell you what that’s made out of?” Wayan smiled enigmatically at his grandson.

“Why?”

“Because, you might not use it again!”

“Why?”

Puteri handed Wayan one of the waxy soapy lumps, and he passed it down to Untung.

“Will you still use it, if I tell you?”

Wayan gave the boy a broad smile. Untung looked at the lump, and then back at his grampa, nodding hesitantly.

“It’s made by boiling sea water and honeycomb and ‘pig fat’!, and..” Wayan sniffed the brownish lump, adding “And calamansi juice, I think.”

Untung stared at the odd shaped lump in his hands.

“It comes from pigs!?” the boy exclaimed in astonishment.

His mother laughed.

“And from bees!” she told him, smiling and running her hand lovingly through her son’s hair.

“But honey comes from bees?” said Untung definitely.

“And so it does!” said Wayan as he scooped a dollop of the amber syrup into his coffee using a wooden utensil, and stirred.

Next Wayan stuck his finger into the bamboo pot of forest honey, sucked his sticky finger, and then offered the pot to Untung. Puteri frowned, but said nothing. Grandfather and grandson smacked their lips, enjoying the fragrant smoothness that ran sweetly over their tongues.

 

Walking back to his house, Wayan thought about honey and bees. Now would be a good time to hunt for honey. The little bees would be easy to spot on such a sunny morning, and they needed some more honeycomb before the heavy rains set in.

From the kitchen beside his house, he casually picked up his honey-hunting equipment and dropped them into a rattan backpack. Endah was still asleep, so he opted not to wake her. After picking up his bow and quiver, he put on his nipa hat. Walking the short distance to the edge of the village, he stepped over the low wall and out into the surrounding forest.

Just under the spreading branches of the old acacia tree at the edge of the forest proper, he paused. There were several paths he could choose. Along the coast southwards ran the dappled, green-gladed sandy path. Off to the right of the sandy path, underneath arching denser vegetation, wound a route up through the jungle towards the mountains. To his right, past the village ran the route west, along the coast past Bahoi, and then eventually across and down to Manado. There was also a sloping smaller path, between the others, that zig-zagged up towards an area of woodland that had plenty of fallen and rotting tree trunks.

Within a short while he was in dense vegetation with multi-coloured flowers arrayed amongst the myriad shades of green foliage. The old woodland was full of humid fragrances, birdsong and the murmuring of innumerable bees at pasture.

Wayan stopped for some private moments in a particular glade, where a group of ornately carved wooden posts stood in a partially cleared area. He then walked on further into the wood, inspecting the visiting bees on the flowers.

There were lots of black bees, as tiny as ants. Many of the other bees were quite small honeybees with furry brown striped abdomens. Some of the bees were very big wild honeybees with furry black and white or fawn-yellow stripes on their abdomens.

Today, he looked particularly at the smaller honeybees with brown striped bodies. He watched as they landed, clung on and stuck their heads into the flowers, moved around a little and then took off for another flower. Patiently, he watched until he noticed a couple of the satisfied insects fly off back to their home, somewhere nearby. Following them, it wasn’t long before he located their nest in the hollow of an old ebony tree.

“You’re not a rotten tree,” he mused, almost silently to himself.

A little later he found what he was looking for – a honeybee colony in an old rotten tree trunk lying on the forest floor.

“Aaah.. just right,” he whispered in a confidential tone, as if he was speaking to the little bees flying frenetically in and out of the entrance.

Putting his backpack and bow on the ground, he gathered large green leaves, laying them on the forest floor, and then handfulls of dryish sticks which he placed on top of the leaves. In the middle of the sticks he added some carefully-chosen, dry, mossy kindling, and then some of the fibrous kindling he had brought with him. On his knees now, he took out his equipment – humming quietly to himself and the busy bees. Picking up the old dry bamboo stalk, about the length of his forearm, he pushed some dry fibres into the hole at the bottom. Placing the bottom end strategically in the kindling, he propped the other end still with his stomach. Next he wrapped a small charred piece of fabric around the sharp end of a chip of obsidian lava. With practised skill, Wayan quickly rasped the chip down the length of bamboo towards the kindling – leaning over and carefully blowing, gently, just gently and then a little more as the glowing fabric on the tip of the chip grew brighter. A little plume of smoke appeared from the kindling, and then a tiny flame.

“First time,” he mumbled with contentment.

Now he arranged the smaller fuel around the burning kindling, and then larger sticks. Once the sticks were well-alight he wrapped the leaves around and tied it into a sheaf-like bundle. Soon, masses of whitish smoke poured out of the bundle, which he placed between him and the entrance to the bee house. The buzzing sounds grew to fever pitch as more and more bees became panicked into incredibly fast moving dots in the air by the thick smoke, which wafted up and out through the trees.

He pulled Agung’s short knife from its hiding place in his nipa hat. After gazing for a moment at the distinctive tool, contentedly he started chipping away the soft wood around the entrance. Around him, the forest lived busily as the birds, insects and other animals called and clattered in the background. Wayan worked steadily within the pleasant smelling clouds emanating from the smoker, while the bees buzzed about him harmlessly.

Gradually he uncovered the bunch of combs, hanging parallel to each other from the top of the wooden cavity. For a few moments he studied the hoards of jiggling bees covering the combs, and then directed more smoke into the cavity. More bees gave up and abandoned their treasure trove.

Kneeling, he reached his hand in and slowly pulled off the first delicate waxen comb. He glanced at the familiar but amazing hexagon structure, before putting it in the backpack. Then, he reached in for the second comb, which he could feel was heavier and full of the golden honey. He inspected the beautiful honeycomb, where the top of each little cell had been capped by the bees using fresh cream-coloured wax..

Pain stabbed him in the back of the neck!

Dropping the honeycomb, he clutched his neck with a startled yell. His fingers fumbled into something sticking out – thin and wooden, intensely painful. He twisted his arms around to try and get at the thing – with an abrupt shock realising it was an arrow!

Another arrow spiked brutely deep into his side!

Why?! Who is it?! He couldn’t understand.

Groaning, his face contorted with the searing pain, as the poison racing in his blood took its effect on the nerves and muscles. His spirit screamed to get rid of the arrows! The arrow shaft in his neck snapped off in his hand. The barbed stone arrowheads, as sharp as needles and plastered with poison, had buried deep into his flesh. Yanking at the arrow in his side, the shaft came away leaving the head inside – a trickle of blood was all that he could see. A third arrow stung his thigh.

Cursing, he grabbed his bow and snatched out an arrow from the quiver that still lay on the ground. Fighting now, he got to his feet. Fingers stiffening, he nocked it onto the tautened cord. Turning and ducking, he strained with blurring vision to look for the attacker. Yet another arrow buried itself in his back. Wayan swung round, squinting desperately.

“Di manakah anda? – Haram!” – “Where are you? – Bastard!” he swore in an anger that seared his mouth.

No answer came. His fading eyesight could see no-one in the leafy forest. And now the cruel injustice caught in his gullet.

“Bastard! – Coward!”

He let loose the single arrow, somewhere, missing. He couldn’t find his quiver! Ugly anger morphed into a sickening flood of despair, and then into choking panic. Struggling to catch his breath, he started running, downhill, home?!

Pain, tight strangling pain, coursed down across his shoulders and crushed his chest. Gasping “can’t breathe! – can’t breathe!” he tripped, crashing down into the undergrowth. Staggering to his feet, bowless, he fell again, unsteadily onto one knee, madly gasping for air, helpless.

Another arrow hit his numbed body and then, much harder still, a clarity struck. In this excruciating moment, with his body failing, he knew many things. Soon, very soon, he would leave this world. He would leave his family – leave the ones he loved with every fibre of his being! He would leave Endah, his childhood sweetheart, leave his precious sons and daughters, leave his grandchildren, and the children he hoped for Ayu. He would leave dear Rukma and everyone he loved in Likupang. In wretched yearning, he reached inside himself for strength, seeing their faces as his spirit reached out to touch them, whimpering “Love.. love you..”

Wayan raised his eyes to the all-seeing Mother Spirit, and stared fully into her sunrays piercing between the trees. His spirit pleaded “Save them..!”

Teetering, he fell forward, headlong onto the forest floor, his face ploughing into the deep leaf litter. Only now did he hear the rustle of feet as someone stood over him. Unable to turn his head, Wayan strained for a last breath before his spirit slipped away, sensing the musky full-bloodedness of the earth.

 

[][] [] *3* Hope and Yearning

Shading his eyes from the glaring sun, Bandri scanned the trees further up the mountain, and then called to his younger brother.

“Harta.. Look up there!”

His brother scrambled up the little ravine to join him.

Several dark crescent shapes hung amongst the branches of the towering trees ahead. Clambering up the slope, they reached a flatter area and stood under the first tree. Bandri studied the shapes high above and then the tree’s branches below it. He walked on and gazed up at the next tree, deciding that it was easier to climb.

“This one I think.”

Bandri dropped his bow and untied his quiver. Shrugging the coconut coir rope off his shoulder, he put the rattan backpack on the forest floor. Bending over, he retrieved the few items they had carried up the foothills of Tongkoko. He felt beads of perspiration trickling down his bare back, as the heat started to build. They had set out at first light but now the morning sun had climbed higher in the sky.

In the dappled shade of the small clearing there was a peaceful tranquility. Within the surrounding shrubby vegetation he could hear the calls of male birds of paradise – detectable from amongst the background clamorous hum of the rainforest. Around the blue pea vine flowers, the scented air danced with the iridescence of tree nymph butterflies, lifting, fluttering, settling.

He turned to look for Harta. His kid brother was sitting on a fallen trunk in the shade of the acacia trees – looking back the way they had come.

Bandri sniffed with acceptance and joined him, choosing the patch of ferns in front of the trunk. Flopping down on the ground, Bandri draped his legs amongst the soft leaves with his arms spread apart over the mossy log. The light breeze rising up the escarpment cooled their bare chests and rustled the foliage around them.

They surveyed the magnificent view. They were high enough to oversee the immense forests on the lower slopes, all the way around to the right. Away to the left bulged the high mountainous peak of Klabat, still shrouded in wispy white clouds.

The thick dark-green canopy made a rolling continuous carpet down to the coast, dotted with coloured trees in bloom. A thin mist steamed off the lush vegetation. To Bandri it seemed as if he could step out and walk on the tops of the trees back to his nipa and bamboo house by the beach.

Beyond the sumptuous carpet at their feet lay the turquoise blue of the bay, and beyond the bay lay the islands. From this high up, he could see the coral scribbled in the sea around the islands – lustrous green lagoons inside with long streaks of foam tailing away from the reef. The almost-bent line of the ocean horizon stretched across, and above it all was the incandescent sun.

Bandri focused his eyes on Bangka Island, always liking to study its outline. It reminded him of a whale in the act of breaking the surface of the sea, like a motionless deep green monster. The central peak resembled the fin on the back of the monster. At one end he could see a plume of steaming, malodorous fumes from the hot springs he remembered playing in when he was a boy. He imagined the fumes as the animal breathing out, just before sucking in another deep breath to plunge back into the depths of the unending ocean.

Sometimes he wondered whether there was an end to the ocean – but it looked like it was endless. When the family had paddled all the way out to the biggest island, and when they climbed to the highest point, they could see no other land out there. There was nothing as far as the eye could see – nothing as far as the taut line between the restless blue water and the open sky above. He remembered so clearly standing there on the summit of that island with his father. Bandri took in a deep breath.

The pain tore at his very sanity, nagging him into violent revenge. Seven moons had come and gone, and each and every day he had hurt, and when the pain hurt too much Bandri thought of the summit of that island where he and his father had stood together, proud and happy.

“I can see Bahoi from here,” Harta muttered, the scowl on his face reflecting the hatred in his voice.

Just then, the brothers felt a slight tremor beneath them, which stopped almost as soon as it had started. They were used to the occasional shaking of the ground.

Tongkoko mempunyai gatal.” – “Tongkoko has an itch,” Bandri quipped, clouting his young brother on the leg. Harta rather liked being referred to like a mountain and a smile flickered through the scowl as he shrugged his silent reply.

Bandri looked in the direction of Bahoi; he couldn’t see their houses but he could see the inlet on the other side of the mangrove swamps and the tops of the trees that would be around the Java village. The pain wrenched his stomach, spilling sourness onto his tongue. He took a swig from the pig-skin water container, and then passed it to Harta.

“Try not to think about Bahoi,” said Bandri. “This season we’ll try to get the boat ready.” Waving an arm over the splendid forests below and the inviting blue of the bay between the mainland and the islands, he added “Look how beautiful the world is!”

 

They resumed their work, looking around for some suitable leaves and dry sticks. Bandri tutored his younger brother, as they wrapped the long green leaves around the sticks. He delved some twine out of the deep pocket of his knee-length kathok, and then bound his large bundle together. Finally, in an open end he pushed some kindling between the sticks. Likewise, Harta bound and prepared his bundle.

“Father used to light it first,” Harta said reverently – almost with a tone of recrimination.

Bandri glanced sideways.

“Just wanted to try it differently.”

Kneeling down against the slight breeze he put more kindling on a broad green leaf. Next he pushed dry fibres into the hole at the bottom of the dry bamboo stalk. Placing the bottom end in the kindling, he propped the other end still with his stomach. Wrapping charred fabric around the sharp end of the black obsidian lava, he rasped the chip down the bamboo towards the kindling, leaning over and gently blowing – before raising his head.

“Father did it first time.”

Bandri breathed in and tried again, ignoring the comment. Rasping and blowing gently, he then blew a little more as a tiny flame appeared in the kindling – nurturing it until he was satisfied that the little knot of fire would not go out. Now he carefully moved the handful of flames next to the kindling in the bundle. In a short while the flames caught hold of the sticks and tried to burn the leaves, producing billowing dense clouds of whitish-grey smoke.

Harta followed his example, and soon had another smoker of his own.

Together they moved upwind of the tree to help direct the smoke up towards the large ominous shapes hanging from the branch high above. They made a low whistling sound. The jostling crescents became more animated.

In an instant, the dark crescent shape exploded into life.

A loud buzzing noise and a dark haze of agitated bees filled the air.

Each bee was as big as child’s finger and there were thousands upon thousands of them; fifty thousand angry bees to a comb and the smoke had disturbed several combs. The bees tried to dodge the smoke and hang on to their comb, but gave up and took off again as if looking for someone to punish. Bandri had learnt to respect the power of these wild honeybees.

With one hand he held the smoking bundle, with the other he threw the rope up over the large branch above. The weighted end looped over the branch and descended towards him. Deftly Bandri threw a knot around the end, pulled it tight, and then tugged it to test it was secure. Kicking off his kasuts he gripped the rope, put both feet on the broad trunk and pulled himself upwards, one hand over the other, climbing steadily and assuredly, with the smoker wedged in his backpack, upwards towards the mass of excitement.

Once his brother had climbed onto the branch above, Harta pulled himself up the rope.

Half way up the acacia’s trunk forked into two. Using this convenient toehold, Bandri levered his body so that he could reach a branch higher up, then lifted himself and hooked one leg over the same branch, pulling up the rest of his body afterwards. Hugging the trunk he stood upright on the branch. The soles of his feet gripped the rough corrugated bark as he pulled himself further up.

The frenetic buzzing subsided a little as the bees vacated the comb enveloped in the thickening smoke. They had been tricked into thinking that a forest fire was about to consume their home, but before they abandoned it they tried to drink some honey, giving them strength to escape the oncoming flames. As long as the honey hunter was careful he should not be stung.

When level with the nearest comb he blithely, yet smoothly, swung himself on top of the branch that supported the large crescent comb of wax, honey and brood that belonged to the wild honeybees. This was accomplished with such athletic prowess that there was no discernible impact on the branch and the bees appeared unaware of his presence. He was now laying face-down along the branch which grew at a slight upward angle. The comb hanging underneath the branch was nearly the length of his body which lay above.

Holding his smoker, Harta watched with admiration from the branch below.

Bandri grasped the branch with his knees and carefully slipped off the backpack, taking care to avoid sudden movements which might provoke the bees. From a sheath he withdrew a long knife which had a burnished bronze blade and a carved wooden handle, to which was attached a plaited noose. Diligently he wrapped the noose around his right wrist. Then, with his left hand, he guided the rattan pack under the upper part of the large thick comb.

Steadily he started to slice off a portion of wide honey-bearing comb, which flopped into the open pack. Gradually he removed more slices, working inwards towards the trunk of the tree. Pale golden, runny honey oozed out from each incision. Syrupy golden rain dripped to the forest floor far below – falling onto the green leaves of ferns, onto white fungal fruiting toadstools, and falling between the flitting butterflies onto blue flower petals.

Some bees returned to defend their colony, intent on punishment. Bandri felt a sharp pain on his right arm, and then another, and another. Clinging on desperately, he brandished the smoker to drive his attackers away. Harta called up to his brother on the smoke-shrouded branch above:

“Are you alright!?”

“I’m fine – coming down soon.”

Bandri paused briefly to rest, licking honey off the back of his knife wielding hand. The deliciously-smooth fragrant sweetness pleasured his palette. He pushed a sizeable chunk of honey-filled wax into his mouth. As he chewed, he cut off more honeycomb and then some brood comb laden with young bees.

It was time to make a retreat. After securing his knife, he edged his way back along the branch. Bracing his legs against the crook of the branch where it met the trunk, he hauled the heavy backpack up and onto his shoulders. Coming down was more challenging than going up. The heavy burden hampered his ability to find good purchases for his feet and twice he had to save himself. Once Bandri reached the rope the final drop to ground level was easier.

Harta was already on the ground, and witnessed the descent.

“Why didn’t you throw the comb down?” he asked when his brother was within talking distance.

“It would make a mess,” panted Bandri, feeling an exhilaration at his accomplishment: “Damaged the honeycomb.”

The exercise had bathed Bandri’s whole body in a sheen of sweat; his thick black hair was shiny and wet. With the pack on the ground he stood upright and stretched, enjoying the cooling breeze.

“If we had more rope I could have lowered the pack – it would have been easier.”

“I could catch it.”

“Yes, maybe,” he admitted. “I just wanted some perfect honeycomb.” Looking up he added “Remember, we should thank the bees.”

As he watched, the large bees started crowding in the air above, and then landing to cover their shrunken home with their bodies once again. The remaining comb on the branch had given the honeybees a foundation on which to rebuild their colony. For a couple of moments Bandri closed his eyelids as a gesture of gratitude; Harta followed his example.

Bandri winced, feeling the stings getting more painful now. The brothers gathered their belongings and moved away from underneath the bee colonies. The large bees searched, hovered and landed on their moist skin, seeking out the patches of sweet honey. Even more bees haunted the backpack.

Casting away the dead smokers they began the trek down towards the coast, with Bandri occasionally pausing to tutor his brother. They had been raised in this verdant landscape. Their father had taught them to watch where their feet were placed, avoiding venomous snakes, particular plants and other perils – their feet had become skillful. Although they felt at home in the forest they also knew there are dangers, especially for a lone traveller, or for those that made their presence known.

They edged along the hot exposed cliffs, down through head-high clumps of wax ginger with glossy-red intricate flowers sprouting amongst the stems, before scrambling over large boulders and into palm, ramin and dipterocarp woodland, where they became encased within the shadowy-green of the thick jungle.

The humid air vibrated with the blurring vision of flight and the clamorous cacophony of sound; a frenetic hum and clatter of insects overlaid by the whoops, whacks and whistles of birds. Shrill cries of wee-oo-wee from ornate lorikeets, the waack-waack calls of red-knobbed hornbills, and whistling squawks of the painted parrots came from every direction. Gangs of macaque monkeys uttered grunts and squeaks, chortling and chattering.

Scented jasmine flowers of reddish-cream, decorated their vines which tangled in the spaces between the splayed buttress roots supporting lofty ebony, mahogany, compass and fig trees. The multi-coloured trunks of rainbow gum trees stood tall, helping to hold up the living green roof of the jungle. Here cucus marsupials and arboreal mammals paused to feast on fruits in season: golden apples from the ambarella tree, pale-yellow langsat from the duka tree or purple mangosteen from the garcinia tree. With their leaves and clusters of bell-shaped yellowish flowers in the bright sunlight of the canopy, the woody stems of long lianas trailed to the crowded shade of the jungle floor.

Within the dank understory, strange putrid-smelling flowers of giant arum-lilies grew taller than themselves. On vines and in amongst the thick leaf-litter, were enormous mottled-orange rafflesia blooms, so large that a man’s arms would not reach around them.

In one place more sunlight fell where a great agara tree had fallen, leaning against the trees that still stood. A rapid climber, growing right to the top, flaunted sprays of red and gold, humming with bees. In the sunlight on another side, creepers had woven a sprawling jade-green mat. Saplings reached upwards for the sun, and gentle gusts entered the jungle, rustling foliage and nudging a stand of giant bamboo stalks to rub against each other, creaking and cracking. Walking more easily through this bowl of heat and light, the brothers grinned at each other through the gaudily iridescent butterflies that danced over waist-high aromatic bushes.

High jungle closed in again, swallowing them.

Pushing and weaving through vegetation, evading the clutches of the scrambling rattan vine, they progressed more slowly. After following a narrow track, evidently frequented by anoa buffalo and other large animals, they came to a gorge formed by a silvery stream flowing off the mountain. From the eroded banks of the gulley Bandri could see that the babbling watercourse became a gushing torrent in the rainy season. Wading ankle-deep in the crystal clear water, flashing with rainbowfish, they picked their way around the smoothed boulders with their bare feet.

They passed through a tunnel of sky-blue trumpet flowers, created by the thunbergia vine smothering the limbs of ancient trees, and emerged into an arcade of tall trees on both sides. Around the trunks, the large fingered-leaves of epipremnum vines tangled upwards, interlaced with branches frothy with epiphytic ferns and fancy-flowering orchids. Myriad greens of mosses and pitcher plants coated the banks of the stream, luxuriating in the weakened sunlight perforating the overhanging ceiling of translucent green.

Making good progress down through the natural gallery they came upon the top of a waterfall, where the flow bent over the rocky lip before cascading down into a plunge pool. Bandri picked up a brown coconut husk that had been softened by lying in the stream, wedging the husk in a convenient fork of the serpentine rooting branches of a banyan tree. Then the two young men picked their way down to the rocky banks of the pattering water pool below, where at last they put their packs down and rested for a short while.

Bandri selected a fist-sized stone, and with casual force he flung it hard at the husk above. With a satisfying thud the stone hit the husk clean out of the fork.

“Your turn.”

Harta clambered up to replace the husk, came back down and had a go – his stone ricocheting off the hard grey bark of the fig tree. Another two goes and he succeeded in knocking off the husk.

“Good – but keep going until you do it first time!”

Stepping under the waterfall, Bandri rejoiced at the cooling affect on his body and the cleansing of his skin from the sticky bits of bark and other debris. The smudges of honey gradually dissolved. Catching the fresh falling mountain water in his mouth he quenched his thirst, and removed his kathok to rinse – throwing the kathok over a low hanging branch to drip dry in the heat. The bright water danced over his slim, muscular frame as he took time to enjoy this freedom.

“I’ve done it first time – twice now!” declared a triumphant Harta.

“Good, now shoot it with your bow.”

His young brother pulled out an arrow from the quiver of about twenty he had tied to his waist. Bandri turned away to get on with another task.

“You’ll need to make a new arrow,” he said with a wry smile. “– for every one you lose.”

Harta shrugged and pulled an insolent face behind his older brother’s back.

Nearby a group of wild banana plants grew. After breaking off a few of the large glossy leaves Bandri returned to the stream bank to lay them out on a flattish bare rock. As he opened the backpack a single bee escaped and flew off. With care he fished the comb pieces out of the pack. In the bottom of the pack he found a few dead bees, drowned in their own honey. Scooping the bodies out, he dipped his hand in the flowing stream – letting them wash away.

Bandri heard another curse “Tuhan!” as an arrow missed its target to get lost forever in the jungle. He watched his younger brother nock another arrow above the tied mark on the bowstring, and then raise the bow, drawing back with his left hand as he did so, one finger above and two below. His right hand was well-placed, and the arrow settled across the inside of the knuckle. Harta drew the bowstring back to touch his lips, as he had been taught, sighting along the arrow shaft. Just before the release there came that impulsive twitch as his young brother willed the arrow to its target. Bandri sniffed quietly, and said nothing; the more his brother practised the sooner the twitch will stop – it’s better to be dead-still.

Harta’s stance and smooth action as he fetched another arrow pleased Bandri. His young brother will be a fine archer; now the men can tutor him in the use of poison. Bandri’s eyes flicked to the pouch attached to his own quiver, leaning against a rock. Made from a pig’s scrotum, the pouch contained the viper venom made sticky with poisonous plant sap, ready for dipping the arrow heads. Never again would any of their tribe venture into the forest without poison.

Bandri breathed in deeply and forced himself back to the present, returning to a more pleasurable task. In the centre of a cross of two oval banana leaves, he arranged a pile of perfectly intact honeycombs. Into a second pile he placed the brood and slightly squashed honeycomb, some of which he ate as he worked. With care he wrapped the leaves around the first pile, which he then bound neatly with twine in two directions to make a neat package.

After rinsing his empty pack in the pool, he lined it with fresh leaves. He put the second pile into the pack and then added a few more leaves. He then placed the package in the top of the pack and fastened it. Finally, he pulled on his damp kathok.

By now, Harta had used up all the contents of his quiver, and was trying to retrieve his arrows from the soft husk now pinned into the fork of the tree.

“How many did you lose?” Bandri asked in an innocent tone.

“Three – but lots are broken!” his young brother said with vexation as he tried to pull them out of the hard tree trunk.

“Not bad young man – not bad at all,” Bandri declared with a mocking refrain. “I used to lose a lot more!”

Harta slipped and slid down towards his laughing brother, grappling him around the neck. The two wrestled in the pool, attempting to drag each other’s head under the falling water. Bandri could feel the growing strength in his kid brother, the tussle being all the harder for his brother’s lightening reactions. Very soon he would be a match.

 

As Harta rinsed out his kathok and gathered his belongings, Bandri sat down and waited, thinking. His young brother was growing up fast and muscle showed on him now. He had plenty of confidence and his courage was strong, as was his sense of justice. Maybe his argumentative young brother really was ready to join the men?

They pulled on their packs and then checked their quivers and weapons. When all was ready they set off again. Their route wound down beside the stream. Bandri pointed out other honeybee colonies – perhaps he may come this way again. Today, he had chosen to go a little further away and higher up, where the air seemed less humid, and where the smoke was less likely to draw attention.

Following the stream he knew it would meet a familiar path, underneath the over-arching forest, gently downwards and out under the spreading branches of the old acacia tree. From there they walked more quickly towards the cluster of wooden structures, which were arranged beside the lazy river which flowed out through the sandy beach into the lapping sea.

“Harta – I think Praba wants you now.”

Bandri pointed in the direction of the river bank where their oldest brother was working.

Terima kasih!” – “Thank you!” Harta said in a jovial manner, and jogged off to his next assignment.

 

Turning from her washing, Ayu’s deep brown eyes glimpsed him walking towards her between the coconut palms. Her lips parted a little, and then changed into a warm welcoming smile. Dropping the wet clothes, she ran lightly towards him.

Bandri cherished the elegant way she moved. He stood still and let her come to him, opening his arms to accept her embrace, and then wrapped them around her. The touch of her cool wet hands on his warm back, and the freshness of her impact against his body exhilarated him.

Cantik mata ..Suka hidung..Lancar bawah..

They stood hugging each other making intimate greetings. He bent his head down to plant kisses onto the beauty of her upturned face; kissing the smoothness of her cheeks, the gentle curve of her lovely nose and her eyelids, which she closed as his kisses chose their destination. He kissed her eyes again and her long eyelashes tickled his lips. He smiled and she turned around coyly in his arms, while his hands appreciated her figure. He kissed the nape of her neck, swaying her gently as she clung onto his right arm.

Feeling the slight swellings on his arm she looked down to see the red patches in the cinnamon-brown of his skin.

Apa yang berlaku di sini?” – “What has happened here?” Her voice was soft, but laden with concern.

To distract her fussing, he took off his backpack and laid it on the ground. From the top of the pack he lifted out the parcel and placed it into her hands, with a big smile, but saying nothing. He watched her face.

She cupped both hands to accept the slightly sticky and weighty green package. It took a moment or two for her expression to change from worry into a knowing radiate happiness. Tipping her body forward she leant into him in tearful appreciation and thanks, holding the gift as if it was a baby.

With his arm around her shoulders the young couple ambled back towards the porch of their house to sit on the log that was shaped like a bench. Between them she placed the parcel and he watched as her nimble fingers undid the twine binding and peeled back the green leaves. The gold and cream honeycomb unfurled before her. She gazed at the gift of fresh forest honeycomb for a brief moment, and then abruptly threw herself into his arms. Catching him off balance, he fell backwards laughing, nearly onto the ground.

Sitting back on the bench more properly, she daintily picked up a choice piece of honeycomb and went to put it into his mouth. He held his lips closed. Taking the honeycomb he placed it on her proffered pink tongue. She managed to close her mouth with just a small dribble of honey on the smoothness of her chin.

Itu lazat.. mmma.. Terima kasih.” – “It’s lovely.. mmma.. Thank you,” she mumbled, lost in the delectability of the floral taste and the thoughtfulness of the gesture. Her soft voice was pitched in an unselfconscious teasing manner. She giggled a little and removed the dribble of glistening gold with the tip of a finger and a pink tongue.

He watched her mouth and her lips. They had been married nearly a year, yet he yearned for her more each day. He watched her as she arched her back and used her forefinger to lift off a drip of golden honey on the fabric of her sarong. She placed the honey between her lips – smiling brown lips that showed pink around the sucked finger.

It was mid-day. The overhead sun bore down, and in the shade of the porch the door to their house was open. Inside the cool shadiness of the room he could see the inviting lustre of their bamboo couch.

Bandri collected a container of fresh mountain water from the stream, carried it inside and then closed the door. She lay on the couch, waiting, smiling.

Dipping a coconut shell into the clear fresh water, he trickled it into her open mouth. She tasted and swallowed the thirst-quenching liquid. A little more he trickled around her neck, cooling, dribbling and tickling. She giggled, her eyes glistening.

Dipping again, he trickled water onto the bodice of her sarong. The liquid soaked into the fabric pulling it down closer to the skin. Dipping and pouring, he moistened the material, gently outlining the two mounds as they pushed up and became more defined.

He kissed the honey-coloured skin of her neck under her upturned chin, and then kissed slowly down to the tiny pool of water caught between the smooth tendons meeting at the top of her breast. He sipped from the trembling liquid. His lips ran over the wet fabric, pausing to tease the sensitive crests of her firm young breasts, gently moving up and down as she breathed.

Untying the sarong around her body, he lifted the material, unwrapping her, peeling off the flimsy under-fabric until her nubile nakedness lay beside him. Carefully she pulled off his kathok. Freed from their clothes, they lay together, naked. Washing and teasing, they splashed the cooling water. Fresh from their bodies, the water ran around, slipped through the bamboo slats and dripped onto the greedy floor, vanishing into the sand.

Lightly, he ran the tips of his fingers over her consenting skin, bending to kiss for the thousandth time the many favourite places. From each place another place beckoned: a closed eyelid, the corner of her mouth, the arched skin under her ear. Giggling, she raised her shoulder vainly in defence of the ticklish spot and a favourite perfect imperfection – the single small freckle on the nape of her neck. Down her body, he kissed and caressed her, wanting her to be his like this forever, wanting to have her totally.

He devoured the smooth firmness of her breasts surrendered to him. Roaming freely, he explored the toned curves of her blissful body, tracing the tips of his fingers over her flawless skin, and the modest cluster of downy black hairs. Reaching around to grasp her, he pulled her even closer, devouring the intimate softness of her femininity.

Closing his eyes, he allowed his senses to focus on touch and sound alone. He felt himself penetrating her warmth, snug and moist. He heard her murmur “Make it last a long time.” Opening his eyes, he looked down into her eyes, willing and intoxicating. Pausing for a few moments, he overcame the urge for release, prolonging the delicious intensity, relishing the pleasure and the joy; the pleasure of unsheathing himself, and then the joy of sheathing himself into her again, and again the pleasure and the joy.

The bamboo couch gave out creaks as the couple make love on top of it, moving a little as they moved, yielding a little as she yielded, witnessing their moans and ecstasies. Speckles of sunlight seeped into the torrid warmth of the room, where the gentle sea-breeze funnelled under the nipa eaves and in through the gaps above the bamboo walls, wafting over their exertions.

 

Satiated, they lay in each others arms, their bodies bathed in perspiration. Bandri reached for the coconut shell and dipped it. Chuckling, he tipped the cool water over their stomachs as she giggled and rolled into him, taking the shell away and dipping it herself.

“Did Harta help you get the honey?” she asked, pouring water over his back.

“He’s doing well,” he mumbled, with a stretch of delight.

“Did you throw the honeycomb down?” she asked sweetly but perceptively, dipping the shell.

He smiled, rolled back a little and kissed her forehead.

“You didn’t really need to carry it down from the tree – you didn’t have enough rope. Drini – you could have fallen.”

Her ability to adapt his name into some new whimsical affectation amused him.

Anda adalah saya semangat.” – “You are my passion,” he replied, chuckling.

“And you are mine!” she retorted, tipping the water over his face.

“Alright! – alright,” he conceded, laughing.

She hugged him tightly, kissing him on the neck.

“Praba wants to get the boat decking finished before the rains come,” he said, stretching as if to get up.

Ayu made a pouting expression and changed the subject.

“ Yesterday,” she said, holding on to him. “When we visited your father’s spirit by the bee houses -”

He became thoughtful, turning on his side to look into her eyes.

“I was thinking that a whole rainy season had gone by, and now everything is dry again,” she said softly. “It means that we’ve been married longer than that – and I wanted to tell you this. That you will always have me.. Because I love you.”

His heart felt as if she had reached in to hold it in her hands.

“And you are my passion,” he breathed, hugging and kissing her.

They cuddled some more.

“Before you go to Bitung,” she said, as he finally sat up on the side of the bed. “Let’s ask everyone to join us for a meal tonight?”

“Your brother has a pig ready,” he said, standing up. “He’s better at killing it.”

A roasted pig or panggang was often the centrepiece of a village feast. Bandri preferred that the bloody business of stabbing the animal in the neck was done by someone else, since he could not help feeling sorry for the poor beast as it squealed and struggled.

 

The bercadik design of the big boat had been based on the best shape from the village’s three small outrigged fishing boats. It was to have an enclosed lower deck and a strong upper deck. Two masts were to rise from the keel through the decks; square rigged sails could be supported on each mast. Forward of the steering oars there would be a cabin for shelter.

Important joints were reinforced with pegs and bound with coconut rope. The seasoned wood on the hull had been rubbed thoroughly with plant resin and beeswax. Water-proofing corking between the planks utilised the cleaned sennit pith from coconut husks and beeswax.

The work was going well, although they were slowed by the need to cut and shape hardwood for the structural beams and planking for the hull. The bronze skewer for making holes, the axe head and the knife blades needed frequent sharpening. If the bronze tools were applied with too much force they tended to bend.

With this boat they could catch bigger fish in deeper waters, or carry copper ore back around the coast from Bitung – instead of needing to perform the exhausting task of hauling the heavy rock overland. But there was a far more important reason for building this big boat.

 

After the mid-day rehat or ‘siesta’, Bandri joined Praba, Andhika and Harta. The men were lashing bamboo outriggers on each side of the boat.

“The boat will be too heavy to move,” Bandri observed.

The comment was enough to divert the other three workers from their current focus. Andhika, who was standing at one end of the boat, put his shoulder up against the hull and gave it a shove. Nothing happened.

“It will be alright if everyone pushes,” Praba said confidently.

“We can lever it forward – and use ropes,” said Andhika who had worked on big boats before, but not one this big. “But it’s going to get heavier.”

“The hull is not strong enough yet,” insisted Praba. “It will leak if we move it now.”

“When it gets heavier, the hull could be damaged,” countered Bandri.

“No, it won’t!” answered Praba curtly.

“How do you know it will float straight in the water?” Not waiting for an answer, Bandri went on “If we get it in the water we can see what happens.”

“We can give it a try,” Harta said, now joining in but getting a disparaging look from Praba.

“If we push it in the river now,” said Bandri more confidently. “We can fix the decking and the rest when it’s floating.”

“See what Rukma thinks!” Praba demanded, running a hand through his hair in exasperation.

The men sent Harta to ask Rukma and Agung to come down to the boat yard. They placidly listened to more debate between the others until Rukma finally said:

“The tide’s rising – we can push it in now.”

Agung nodded in agreement, and Praba bit his lip.

Harta ran off to gather people to the event. The others cleared the structure of tools and obstacles, and then readied some rolling logs.

It was not long before people started appearing, chattering excitedly. The children were made to stand well back from the scene, with Kusama and Endah taking charge of the juvenile audience.

“We have to keep a lookout for crocodiles!” Rukma reminded them. “Keep the children away from the water.”

Praba tried to take charge of the socially intricate task of allocating pushing positions along each beam of the stern outriggers: Ayu, Sukma and Melati on one side, with Joyah and Puteri on the other side. Untung wanted to push with his mother. Then Puteri, who was pregnant, was told by Joyah to swap places with Kusama. At that point, Joyah let slip that she was pregnant too; there was a pause in events for congratulating Joyah and Andhika.

Agung took a position at the stern of the hull, flanked by the two other large men – Praba and Rukma. Andhika and Bandri got ready to lever the hull forward and Harta positioned the logs for the keel to roll over.

Finally, at Andhika’s call: “Satu..Dua..Otot!”, almost drowned out by the sound of children yelling joyous encouragement, the heaving, pushing and levering began.

The boat shifted, then faltered, then shifted some more, until the bow was just touching the edge of the rising water. Now a different problem presented itself, since the leading edge of the keel was starting to dig into the fine wet sand. A break was called.

Drinks and refreshments were brought down to the scene, which turned into an impromptu party with offerings of various and often bizarre ideas of how to get the boat into the river. A couple of the kids had been enjoying themselves bouncing up and down on one of the coconut palm trunks that leant right over close to the beach.

“You could put a rope over that trunk,” Puteri said, pointing across the river at another tree leaning over. “And jerk it into the water?”

“Alright, we can try,” Rukma said obligingly. “But we have to watch out for crocodiles – nobody splashes about in the water.”

With the tide now full, the tribe decided on this one last attempt to complete the launch today. Long lianas were gathered and knotted together. One end of this improvised rope was tied to the prow of the boat, and then the rest carried across the river in a small fishing boat. While Bandri and Harta bounced the trunk, Agung alternately heaved and pulled down on the rope, wrapping the slack around a convenient stump, thus yanking it tighter and tighter.

Now everyone else went back to pushing the big boat, in concert with the team across the river. This time the jerking and pushing freed the hull, nudging it further into the water – until at long last it slid right in and was launched. And it floated, a little to one side, but it floated effortlessly – as if it weighed hardly anything at all.

Spontaneously, the celebrations began.

 

The pig’s screams were ear-piercing, as the two men hauled it by its ears and long curved tusks through the middle of the village. A gaggle of children followed it, eager to see what would happen next. Joyah and Puteri appeared, pulled away the children and scolded their drunken husbands for their crude joking references to shafts and anuses.

Down on the white sandy beach in the late afternoon sun, the jolly men decided that Harta should join in as they jostled around the grunting animal. The pig panted and gathered its strength. Praba and Andhika sharpened the bamboo stake. The men took it in random turns to hold the pig down, giving each of them time to swig the alcoholic toddy.

Harta and Rukma changed places. The pig wriggled and felt the weight on top lift itself briefly – and made its bid for freedom. It shot out from under them at top speed. First it scuttled downhill towards the sea. Realising it needed to change direction, it then slipped and swerved back up the beach towards the village, dodging past the laughing and shouting men.

Now the chase was on. The terrified beast desperately looked for hiding places, staying for a brief while until it was flushed out by its pursuers. The women tried their best to understand and manage the whole affair. Then the squealing pig darted inside Andhika’s house. In dismay, Joyah swept up her crying child and screamed instructions at her husband who was trying to corner the pig somewhere inside. Beside himself with glee, Praba ran round the outside of the house, jibing encouragement at his friend through the bamboo walls. Joyah now unleashed her fury, verbal and physical, onto her annoying brother, until at last Andhika appeared at the door, dishevelled but triumphant – towing the hapless victim.

Once again on the beach, Bandri and Praba held the sobbing creature. Agung placed the sharp point of the stake strategically to one-side of the neck – directed at its pounding heart. The big man swung his heavy mallet onto the blunt end of the spear, driving the point deep into the chest. Bright-red blood spurted from the wound as the stricken animal bucked, giving out gurgling squeals – briefly appeared to be paralyzed, before entering its death throes. Meanwhile, Andhika helped Harta hold the wooden vessel so that he could catch the gushing life-blood.

This would be Harta’s initiation into the acceptance of him as a young man amongst the other men in the tribe. As he held the vessel of warm crimson blood, each of the men dipped in a hand and patted him around the naked shoulders. Andhika then told Harta to smack his bloodied hand onto each of their bare chests.

With mixed feelings of sadness and pride, two of the women watched this ritual from a distance. Kasuma and Endah had witnessed the blooding and now they would gather the plant roots they needed. Tomorrow they will rub the charcoaled root dust into the perfect skin of the youth. Then, with a sharp edge of a shell, they will scratch out the marks of manhood over his left shoulder blade. Harta had been proclaimed a man with a man’s rites. Now he could attend their meetings, and if necessary he could fight for the tribe. If agreed by the tribe, he could take a wife.

Leaving the dead body on the sand, the men jogged down into the surf where the blood red marks dissolved into the vastness of the water.

 

Bandri built a hearty fire near the beach shelter, while Andhika and Harta disembowelled the pig. They washed the carcass in seawater, and then impaled and fixed it lengthwise on a bamboo pole, with a handle at one end for turning. Agung hammered in two stout forked branches either side of the fireplace to suspend the panggang just above the hot glowing embers. Roasting the whole pig would take well into the evening.

Praba and Puteri washed clean the innards of their contents, and carried everything over to Kusama and Endah whose cooking experience and status allowed them to delegate tasks for the forthcoming feast. Meat was stewed with spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and wild lemon grass or skewered onto bamboo splinters, complemented by katuk, kedondong and native vegetables. Smoke bearing the rich smells of native cooking wafted up into the still air. The girls decorated tables with flowers, jack fruit, water apples, star fruit, rambutan, kumquat, coconut and calamansi juice, together with sizable quantities of honey and brood comb.

Suspended in the tropical sky, the golden-yellow orb of the Mother Spirit threw down her beckoning path over the sea. On the beach, the children and parents played tag games. Meanwhile Harta and the men took turns to wrestle. This natural enjoyment, practised for millenia, nearly always obeyed the unwritten rule amongst tribe members of not harming your opponent.

Taking a break from the wrestling, Bandri sat on the beach. Idly, he raised his arm over the glinting orange path, observing that the sun was now just a finger’s width above the western horizon. Rising above the eastern horizon was the waxing moon, three-quarters full, with his pearly face smiling at the sun. As he looked at Father Moon and Mother Sun, he wondered about how they were related to each other, deciding that it must be the sun shining at the moon. Wasn’t the sun like a big fire that lit up the faces of people sitting around it?

Bandri sat and watched as the sun smouldered and descended with perfect precision. The sun didn’t pause when she hit the horizon, but sank steadily out of sight, suffusing cool violet shades across the twilight waters, and yet still crowning the mountain with radiant gold. Across the sky Bandri observed the moon with its familiar face, still illuminated by the sun over the horizon.

Breaking out of his dream-state, Bandri looked around to see Rukma push torches into the sand, while Ayu stuck beeswax candles onto sea shells next to the women preparing vegetables and scraping the soft white linings of young coconuts. Murni played happily on a rattan mat close by her mother’s feet. The village seemed at peace. Bandri peered back up at the moon in the splendid stellar vault of the night sky, and wondered if the sun now shone on other lands across the ocean.

Aroung the fire began the singing and dancing. The typee dancing favoured this night involved a leader who contrived the moves. This choreography had to be mimiced by people of their choice; the mischievous romping evolutions bringing every limb into requisition.

Bandri knew Praba was in his element. In a strong baritone voice, loosened by toddy, he led the assembly into a string of native songs:

Tak tong tong galamai jaguang

Tagunda-gunda ka cambuang basi

Jan suko duduak bamanuang

Urang pamanuang jauah rasaki

Jan suko duduak bamanuang

Urang pamanuang jauah rasaki..

meaning that: ‘If we do nothing but just daydream all of the time, we get nothing.’

The family delighted in the crystal-clear voice of Melati. Although shy, when she was obliged to sing she soon lost herself in the melody that seemed to be borne within her. When she felt too exposed, she called on Ayu and Sukma to sing with her; the three then dancing with a floating sway of supple limbs and precious pretty faces to an appreciative audience.

Bandri admired the musical talents of his big brother and younger sister, but felt self-conscious of his own singing voice, knowing it to be rather poor. But everyone was called on at some time to contribute a song, and under duress, bolstered with a little toddy, even he and Agung joined in.

 

Melati loved the melodies. She could sit, oblivious to the world around her, humming and singing quietly to herself, tapping out rhythms on lengths of bamboo. Rukma had made several wooden musical instruments for her as gifts.

Since those days of horror and grief after father had been found murdered, she had spent even more time with Musang. This is what she had been doing today – feeding Musang in his cage and singing to him, while Sukma cleaned out his bedding. This was when she heard Harta calling for everyone to come and push the boat into the river.

Melati still lived with her mother and Harta in a house next to Bandri. But now she looked after her mother who had become increasingly frail since her father’s murder. She felt that looking after her mother was the least she could do. The pain of loosing her father was as nothing compared to the affect it had on her mother, who often seemed quite deranged. Melati did her best to listen, but her own grief sometimes made it very difficult.

What made it all bearable was the close bond she had with Dri and Ayu, and Suk of course. Agung was Agung. Still she didn’t know what he felt about her, and still she was afraid to look him in the eyes, but he was impossible to ignore.

Her mother had said something yesterday which made Melati very quiet and anxious. Endah seemed to say many strange things these days, but what she had said seemed very earnest.

“Dear daughter – you are growing up so fast,” said her mother, holding tightly onto Melati’s hand. “Have you been thinking about who you want to marry?”

Melati had never considered marriage as something she could decide, until that moment. Right now however, she was not interested in having anything to do with boys or men, no matter who they might be.

Melati hadn’t replied to the question, so her mother had then said:

“Your father and I want you to be happy – with a good man to look after you.”

Her mother often talked as if her husband was still alive – but Melati had come to accept this and still said nothing. She just waited to hear what her mother was going to say, which was:

“Agung will be a good husband for you..”

Her mother was saying something else but Melati was not sure what it was. That her mother wanted her to marry was a surprise, but that she wanted her to marry Agung was shocking. She had been preoccupied with these thoughts ever since. She was even too bewildered to risk sharing this confusion with her two best friends, who were Agung’s sisters.

Melati had been looking at Agung today as they launched the boat. All this evening she had been looking across at the big man, trying to sort out her feelings. She could sense that he had an inner depth to him, but he spoke so little and never seemed to look at her.

She studied him as he hunched by the fire. She found herself fascinated by him; there was something deeply mysterious about him. Even on an evening like this, he wore his giant bow with the big arrows in a quiver on his back – and he carried that big spear around with him. And always he had the sheath that held the great bronze machete.

Ever since her father’s murder, Melati had felt an aching loneliness, even in the company of Sukma and Ayu. Looking at Agung she yearned for his attention. Maybe he would make it all better?

Late in the evening, Agung had seen her watching him. She felt sure of this, because he had looked across at her, seemed to smile for a moment – and then looked somewhere else beyond her! Melati turned her head away and pretended that she was looking for something she had dropped in the sand.

He got up and walked towards her. Her heart pounded. But then he walked straight past her! He didn’t even look at her! He just walked off down the beach towards the river. He paid her no attention. She knew it now – Agung wasn’t interested in her.

 

Bandri thought it wasn’t the best time, but he knew what Agung could be like. After explaining the situation to Rukma, he jogged back down the wide beach where the river flowed out into the sea at low tide.

Rukma chaperoned Ayu and the girls to Praba’s house, where they could sleep together with Puteri’s family. Praba, Andhika and Harta settled down to sleep on the porches outside the houses, being too drunk to be allowed inside; each of them had consumed copious quantities of toddy that evening.

Slinging two large bows over his shoulder, Rukma hung the quivers of arrows at his waist. Picking up three flaming torches in one hand and carrying several strong mangrove-wood spears under his arm, he then joined the two young men on the beach.

“I see what you mean!” exclaimed Rukma, cursing under his breath.

“We could wait until the morning,” suggested Bandri. “Better in the daylight – and the others will have sobered up.”

However, Agung seemed determined:

“It will be in the river before morning,” he growled. “After feeding.”

“It’s a big crocodile,” said Bandri, remembering the others they had dealt with.

In the bright moonlight, on the stretched slope of the beach, they all stared at the long sinuous bulk of a salt water crocodile, waddling along with apparent impunity – ambling ever closer to the village. Its enormous scaly body and thick long tail made deep curving tracks in the sand. The moonlit creature was magnificently defined and awe inspiring, while the shadows of its tracks appeared behind it like a giant plaited rope on the glistening beach.

Ia adalah luar biasa!” – “It’s incredible,” murmured Bandri as he admired the sheer evil beauty of the carnivore, but he knew the others found it repugnant.

“Incredibly dangerous!” Rukma told them gruffly. “It’s a male – marking out his territory. It’s bold enough to walk into the village anytime. Nobody’s safe from it.”

“Kill it tonight!” growled Agung.

The very idea that any of the children or girls could be preyed on as food by this reptile was loathsome in the extreme. It was clear that Agung intended to kill it now, on his own if need be. Bandri accepted the proposition with dread in his heart.

“Alright – but we need to think about this.”

“We wait until it’s far from the river then all three use bows at the same time – aim for the sides. Watch out for the jaws and the tail can break your legs!” Rukma instructed. Almost as a joke, he added: “And don’t shoot each other!”

When the three human attackers spaced out around the monstrous meat-eater, it appeared to regard them more seriously, possibly as potential prey. The stalking men crouched lower to minimise their visual impact as they closed in, each then pushing their torches and spears into the sand. They loaded their bows. The immense jaws opened a chink, revealing the rows of teeth catching the moonlight as shining white daggers. A guttural growl vibrated as a chilling warning. This apex predator had recognised that they were the enemy.

Checking each of them were at angles to lessen the chance of an accident, Rukma uttered the signal:

Pergi!” – “Go!”

As three large arrows struck the scaly hide, the animal jolted into action. Raising itself clear off the ground with an odious hiss, its gaping jaws whipped around for a target to grapple – running fast at Rukma, biting savagely with horrifying intent. As Rukma scrambled backwards, Agung and Bandri released arrows at close range into the sides of the belly. The arrows thunked into the animal’s armoured flesh, piercing yet having no impact apart from enraging it still further and diverting its attention. It lunged for Bandri.

Agung grabbed his spear. Snarling “Die!” he drove the point hard into the crocodile’s flank – holding on to the shaft as he rammed it further in. The beast hissed louder and writhed towards Agung, reaching viciously for his bare legs with grasping jaws. Abruptly, the huge body rolled and the spear-shaft snapped cleanly, forcing him to jump clear of the thrashing tail.

Bandri had now taken hold of his spear. For a fleeting moment, time seemed to stand still as he watched Agung’s spear break, the beast rolling towards his friend with the lethal jaws wide open. Running at the moving mass, Bandri struck from the opposite side.

The spear lodged in the scaly folds of the neck. Holding on grimly, he tried to push and angle the spear more effectively into the throat and possibly the heart. Bandri heard the others shouting but could only watch the rows of snapping white teeth near his legs. Frantically he hopped and skipped, striving to find purchase on the damp sand.

The hissing demon rolled again, snatching the shaft away from Bandri’s grasp – the shaft cracking hard against his temple. Before the raging animal could right itself, Agung leapt forwards, snarling “Die now!”, and with two hands powered the machete deep into the exposed underside, then wrenched it back out. The giant convulsed, hissed and swung its tail wildly in the air while Agung stabbed again, crazed stabbing, seeking its heart.

Blood, black in the moonlight, spouted into the air as the behemoth’s demonic utterances screamed in their ears. The great tail hammered down on the beach as the dragon rolled groggily onto its stomach, hissing blood from its gaping jaws, shooting caustic droplets onto their bare skin.

Almost stunned from the blow to the head, Bandri hesitated in a moment of sympathy as he witnessed the struggle for life. Now Rukma thrust mightily with his spear deep into the cavernous mouth. The great jaws clamped shut, fracturing the wooden shaft. The unworldly din silenced and the heavy body collapsed. For a moment the clawed legs paddled and spasmed until it lay still.

The contest was over. Vigorously alive, the three men celebrated in wild abandon, performing an ageless jig of victory.

“Crocodile steak!” declared Agung, sitting astride the conquered monster.

Bandri ran his hands over the scales, relieved and happy, yet still feeling a pang of sorrow that the living spirit had just left such a stupendous creature. He ran his tongue around his mouth and discovered a cut on the inside of his cheek, tasting the saltiness of his own blood.

“Maybe you two will like Bitung,” joked Rukma. “It’s full of snakes and crocodiles!”

He clasped the younger men around the shoulders, proclaiming that he was proud of both his sons. Like that, the three men strode bloody and triumphant back to the sleeping village.

 

In the crisp morning sunlight, the two girls hastened to join the others milling around the spectacle.

Covered in hard grey scales, a gigantic salt water crocodile lay on the beach: over six paces long from the tip of its grisly nose to the end of its whip-like demon tail. Rows of blackish-grey gnarled scales ran the length of its back and down along the hard muscular bends. Underneath, paler-grey scales concealed the bloated belly. Folds of scaly reptilian flesh joined the heavy head to the thick neck and massive body, with four squat legs ending in gruesomely clawed feet. The grimace of protruding long, white carnivorous teeth hid even more stout teeth inside the huge laughing jaws, set under the broad log-like skull, with its nostrils and watchful eye sockets.

Melati studied its hideous body. Was it breathing? Maybe the monster would wake up!? Then she saw the remains of arrows and broken spears sticking out of its scaly armour. Dark-red stains had been splashed around its neck and stomach, and the stains spread over the kicked up sand all around. With an intake of breath she understood the stains, and watched the crabs and noisy sea birds pecking away at the bloodiest bits. She stayed at a respectable distance, although Sukma went right up and patted the mountainous corpse on the end of its snout.

“Go on, Mel,” laughed her friend. “Dare you to touch it!”

Melati stood closer to the protective figure of Sukma’s father, and looked up.

“It was killed last night,” Rukma explained gently. “It was getting too close to the village.”

“Who killed it?” Melati asked quietly, almost as if the crocodile was asleep and might hear.

“Agung,” said Rukma with pride in his voice.

Melati thought again about last night, when he had walked past her down the beach. Had he seen it then? She found the thought distressing and pushed it away from her mind.

“My big brother!” Sukma chirped with delight, and then added “Hatty was ‘very’ drunk last night.”

“My brother had lots to drink,” said Melati with disgust. “He was being sick.”

“Yes,” Rukma gave a little laugh. “Yes – Harta was too drunk to see it.”

“It’s horrible isn’t it?” Ayu said, making a shudder as she joined the three of them. “But we love Agu for looking after us.” She smiled and hugged Sukma who grinned in total agreement. Ayu then put her arms around Melati who was grateful for the embrace.

“That’s one of the reasons we have a big fire here at night,” explained Rukma. “So we can see any crocodiles. They can move fast, and jump out of the water to grab people, even big people. And they swim in the sea.”

“That’s why we have to be careful where we swim,” Ayu said. Melati knew she was trying to be light-hearted.

“Yes. Listen to what Ayu says,” Rukma said. “Swimming is only allowed in places we know are safe – and make sure the children don’t play near the water.”

“When we were pushing the big boat into the river,” said Melati. “Do you think it was watching?”

 

By mid-morning, the revellers of the night before were still pulling themselves together. Bandri stood looking at the half-finished boat moored alongside the river bank.

“Tell me?” began Harta hoarsely, who was standing next to him. “I heard Rukma saying something about why father was killed?”

Turning to look at him, Bandri saw now, not so much a kid brother, but a very young man filled with suppressed anger at the unresolved outrage of his father’s murder. Harta’s voice was in a sorrowful state:

“I felt sick,” he admitted. “I wanted to know last night – but I don’t get told things.”

Bandri put his hand on Harta’s shoulder and bade him to sit down with him on a nearby tree trunk.

“ It was something that happened at the meeting with the men from Bahoi. Father got angry,” said Bandri, but he didn’t want to go over all this bad feeling again. “Rukma had a lot to drink last night -”

“He must have had a reason!” Harta cut in. “He was so kind – he wouldn’t have got angry without a reason. What happened?”

“ When they met with the men who wanted Mel and Suk – it didn’t go well,” explained Bandri with a sigh. “Rukma and father didn’t like them. The man who wanted to marry was much older – and the girls are much too young. The man felt insulted by father. Rukma tried to reassure them but -”

“Rukma’s too soft!”

“Don’t say that Harta! You don’t know what happened. He was angry too but he was trying to be careful not to annoy them.. Of course he cares for his own daughter!.. Our father was killed many days after that meeting – but it could have had something to do with it.”

“Did Rukma tell you his name?”

“He didn’t know the name. It’s the son of the Bahoi senior – quite tall and strong looking, with a thick beard – but maybe it wasn’t him that killed father.. The arrows were fletched with reed – that’s what the Java often use – ”

“They killed father, didn’t they?!”

“We have no proof.. Father was on his own when it happened – it could have been anybody who attacked him.”

“Look at the way they’ve taunted us since? When Praba and me saw those men from Bahoi on the path by the mangroves – I saw the look on their faces!” Harta moaned. “If we know it was that man – we should kill him!”

“But Harta, we don’t know it was him!”

“We know he came from Bahoi – one of them should be killed!”

The cracking sound of torment in Harta’s voice affected Bandri’s composure and he had to turn his head away in anguish, feeling tears welling up from inside.

“We don’t even know he came from Bahoi!” he said firmly to his young brother, even though he looked now at a random spot across the river. Bandri’s thoughts wandered to the summit of Bangka Island as he struggled to compose his feelings. He felt the anxiety in the pit of his stomach for the safety of Ayu and the girls. He hated that his family had to live in fear like this. The men must protect the women and girls – and the children. He didn’t want to imagine what could happen to Ayu if she was taken. Likupang could not afford to start a war with Bahoi. He turned to look again at his brother.

“Harta – we can’t just kill anyone,” he said, trying to heal the gnawing wound in their lives. “They’re from Java. We need to try and understand them better – they have different customs. It’s difficult but we need to try and keep the peace between the villages or other people will get hurt too – we have to protect the women and children.. If we kill one of them – they’ll start killing people here.”

The two brothers crouched together on the log without speaking. Harta’s youthful thoughts mingled indiscriminately with his impulses. Bandri’s thoughts strived to form within his intellect and seperately from his emotions, before the two could fuse into prejudice. They sat thinking, vaguely looking across the river in the general direction of Bahoi.

Praba joined them, standing opposite his brothers.

“I know what you two are thinking about,” he declared. “Be careful not to upset mother. She really enjoyed herself last night – seeing all her family so happy.”

“Her hair has gone white,” Harta said bitterly. “She’s changed since father was killed – she doesn’t know what she’s doing now.” Tears fell from Harta’s cheeks. “It’s killing her.”

Harta’s head was down, his eyes staring somewhere near his feet as his sadness was unloaded into the air. His older brothers accepted his words without reproach.

“Working on the boat helps a lot,” Praba told them. “It helps me forget about what happened – it’s what we agreed would make us stronger. We must get more bronze so we can make better weapons and tools – and defend ourselves so it never happens again.. It’s what father wanted.. Never forget this boat can save the girls from the dogs in Bahoi. It’s strong enough to save all of us. It can take us all to Manado so that we can join our Malay brothers.”

Praba continued his speech, turning to point as he spoke:

“Look what we’ve done – it’s bigger than any boat they’ve got. Can they get near a boat this big? No they can’t! Not sitting in their little boats – we can stand and shoot the dogs with big bows before they get near! I hate the Java dogs!” Picking up a length of heavy timber, he swung it hard against a nearby coconut trunk, breaking the timber in two and shaking a coconut free from on high. Ignoring the thud of the coconut as it hit the ground he cursed and vowed: “One day I will make them pay for murdering father – the cowardly dogs!”

Praba wiped the sweat of anger and frustration from his brow, and paused from his rant. He dropped the shortened length of timber and looked back at Bandri and Harta, still crouched on the log together. Bandri held his older brother’s gaze, seeing within the blustering violent man the gentle kind man who also loved and missed his father.

“Brothers, I want to pay them back for father’s murder as much as both of you do!” Praba told them more placidly. He turned again and paced closer to the boat, running his fingers through his hair.

“Oars through holes – just here,” Praba said, pointing to the handrail.

“Two oars on each side – maybe three,” said Bandri, thankful that for now the storm appeared to have abated. “Before we leave for Manado, I was thinking how we could tie a small boat on each side – on top of the beams.”

“We can tow a boat,” said Harta, making the effort to focus on this project that united them all.

 

Before breaking for the mid-day rehat, Bandri sought out his friend Agung. After waking up on the porch, he had retired back to his own house, from where he had yet to emerge. Putting his head around the door of Agung’s house, Bandri saw the big man sat polishing a small bronze item of some sort.

Baik pagi!” – “Good morning!”

His friend seemed surprised – looking up to reply “Pagi” in a good-humoured tone. He wrapped the item in the cloth, leaving it on his seat as he got up.

This sparked Bandri’s curiosity since he had never seen Agung behave this way before – as if he was trying to hide something. Casually letting himself in, he came and stood close to the seat where the wrapped item lay – smiling at the large man in front of him.

Agung’s ruggedly handsome face with its wispy short beard was part-covered by the unkempt long black hair. His features were relaxed as he gazed down at Bandri. After pushing some hair away from his brown eyes, he blinked and smiled awkwardly.

“You want to see?.. But it’s just an idea.” Agung spoke in a deep placid tone, picking up the wrapped item and putting it into Bandri’s hand. “But don’t tell the others – but maybe Ayu,” he added nervously.

Bandri unwrapped the cloth to reveal a bronze figure of a bird with wings spread out, well detailed and polished, lying in the palm of his hand.

“It’s wonderful Agung!. How did you make it?”

“It needed tidying up when it came out of the mould – I wanted to try and get the shape on both sides.”

“It’s the best piece of bronze I’ve ever seen – it’s really good! The loop at the back – is that for a necklace?”

“Maybe – I was thinking it could be a brooch for a sarong.”

Bandri could not help but grin at his friend in dumbstruck surprise. It was a gift for a girl.

“I cut the model out of a block of beeswax,” Agung said in a matter of fact manner, handing Bandri the parts of the mould he had used. The big man pointed to the small sprue channels in the broken dried clay fragments. “The wax melts out when you heat it up,” he explained. “Then I poured in the metal.”

The artistic intelligence needed to make such an item deeply impressed Bandri, but he avoided being too generous with his praise. He knew it would make his good friend feel uncomfortable.

“I was watching Ayu and the girls do their batik when they melt the beeswax, and it gave me the idea for the mould.”

Agung had recovered from his temporary embarrassment, and launched into a detailed description of the process. This verbal capability only appeared to surface when he became immersed in technical detail.

While Agung talked, Bandri thought about the likely recipient of this extraordinary gift. His immediate assumption was that the recipient would be Mel, but he said nothing. Mel was still very young and he was uncertain about her opinion of Agung. There was also another possibility. Aware of his friend’s delicate sensitivities, he decided not to follow these streams of thought into open topics of conversation.

The talk turned to the journey they were planning tomorrow so that they could get more ore for smelting. When Bandri left Agung’s house, he had been sworn to secrecy about the brooch, except that he could tell Ayu – but that she should tell no-one else!

 

The first thing Ayu said to him was:

“Bandy, you could do with a wash!”

The accumulation of sea water, sand, smoke, wood-chips and blood since this time yesterday had yet to be removed. He nodded in agreement, and then told her:

“Hey, your brother seems to have a soft spot for a girl!”

“Really!?”

Ayu grinned widely.

Bandri made sure he added:

“But you must promise not to tell anyone else.. you will promise?”

Ayu did a little jump up and down:

“Yes, yes, but who is she – it’s Mel isn’t it?”

“He didn’t tell me – and we don’t know.”

“Mel is so young isn’t she?”

“She is too young – he would have to wait.”

“Agu has been on his own for too long,” mused Ayu. “He’ll tell me if he’s thinking of Mel.”

“You promised you wouldn’t say anything – you can’t ask him!” he reminded her. “Just give him time – you’ll know when he’s ready.”

He told her about the brooch and they speculated a bit more, but when he reached out for a hug he was reminded:

“You still need your bath – or I’m not coming near you!”

After collecting plenty of fresh water from the stream, Bandri rummaged through some waxen soapy lumps. After choosing a satisfactory lump he then picked up one of the sponges. In their simple bamboo cubicle beside the kitchen, he kicked off his single item of clothing, the kathok, and used an empty coconut shell to repeatedly tip water over himself and lather-up the sponge, with his back to the kitchen where his wife prepared their mid-day meal.

Ayu paused to watch her husband – being able to see much of his nakedness as he took his make-shift shower. They were used to each other’s intimacies, but just looking at him like this always excited her. He had an unusual grace for a man: powerfully muscled shoulders tapering to compact buttocks and strong, straight legs. His back and legs were darkly tanned while his middle was less so. Apart from the mat of black hair on his head she could see just a thin fuzz of hair on his lower legs, and his chest had a sparse covering of hair. She liked feeling the soft stubble on his chin.

She had learned he was a thoughtful man when he courted her – giving her little gifts, like pots of scented honey wrapped in her favourite flowers. Frighteningly deep, this mysterious side of him used to scare her. She can even remember hiding from him. She remembered now that she had fallen in love with his eyes first – they always seemed to demand her attention when he looked at her. She loved those eyes of his. Once she was able to hold his gaze, she knew that she wanted to be his.

“Dri – You will take care, won’t you?” she called out tenderly to him. Her dear husband and her brother would soon be trekking through the jungle to collect bronze ore, and this knowledge worried her almost beyond words. Her father had told her what Bitung was like.

“Don’t take risks,” she added, deciding to be more instructive.

“We don’t go into the town,” he replied. “We just pick up ore from the ground.”

“I want you here with me,” she declared selfishly. She hated not knowing where he was for days on end. She hated nights without him; she needed his hard lean body beside her, to reach over and hold close; when she could feel that passion, and down inside the stretching, filling sensation, the sliding, satisfying movement, and the delirium that comes and goes; when she wondered about a baby, his baby.

 

[][] [] *4* Pantai

At the first light Bandri slipped out of bed, leaving Ayu still asleep. He and Agung prepared for their long trek to Bitung to collect bronze ore.

The men had agreed that only two of them left the village at any one time for fishing, hunting, getting building materials, gathering fruit, honey-hunting and collecting ore. Presently the village had one machete, two bronze knives, an axe head, and a skewer. They had decided another trip for ore was needed so that all the men could have long knives or machetes.

Agung wore a large bow with its quiver of big arrows on his back, plus the machete at his waist. Bandri chose to carry a spear and a smaller bow with arrows more suitable for shooting small game, plus a sharpened bone dagger. Both had prepared provisions for the journey in strong rattan backpacks; however the packs were mainly intended for carrying the heavy rock back home to the village.

Harta had been assigned the task of keeping a lookout on the hill – the high vantage point north of the river, from where he could run back to the village if needed. Bandri called in at his mother’s house to make sure his young brother was well awake and knew what to do. Agung roused Praba and Andhika.

Bandri returned to find Rukma and Kusama had arrived. They had already lit a fire in his outside kitchen in readiness for cooking the sarapan; they and Sukma would stay with Ayu while he was away. The promising sun started to break the eastern horizon. Kusama tended the crackle of flames in the hearth from which sweet smelling wood smoke crawled lazily into the cool air.

“We’ve got plenty of crocodile steak to eat,” Rukma quipped. “So no-one will need to go hunting until you get back.”

“Thank you,” Bandri said simply, being unable to express his emotions too intensely towards Rukma, although he felt all the gratitude in the world to Ayu’s father. Rukma put his large hand on his shoulder, and for a brief time they clasped arms. They used to avoid eye contact, but at some point this didn’t seem to matter anymore. Their relationship had become like father and son.

Bandri picked up a long, flat pebble and with a soft pumice stone scratched some white marks on the smooth, granite-grey surface. He wanted to leave something for Ayu, using some symbols that they had invented together to leave little messages for each other.

meaning ‘se-ma-n-ga-t’ – ‘passion’ or ‘spirit’.

Smiling, he put the pebble on their log that was shaped like a bench.

Looking up briefly, he scanned across the beach, the placid surf line, and beyond to the islands sitting on the horizon across the bay. After a reflective pause, he turned and slipped quietly into the house to say goodbye to Ayu, closing the door behind him.

 

The early morning light glowed through the gaps above the bamboo walls of the room. Ayu lay on their low bed, her bare shoulders just visible above the batik bed sheet. She appeared to be sleeping, with her head turned away from him and long black hair partly covering her sultry features.

He knelt down on the floor beside the bed and looked at the form of his wife in her relaxed posture, studying the outline moving slightly up and down as she breathed. After some moments he carefully lifted the edge of the sheet to see the curve of her hips, and then slowly put his head underneath the material, not yet touching but so close to her smooth skin that the delicate warm smells treated his senses, reviving the intimate memory of their passion during the night. The amber light under the thin fabric offered a rich vision of her naked body: a vision of radiant, shapely, sensuous skin. She hardly moved or made a sound as he kissed her, gradually and gently, rising up the listless length of her legs, tasting her. Upon her snug-flat stomach he laid an ear, listening to the little movements inside and her hurried heart beat. Then he kissed and licked upwards to reach her firm brown breasts, coaxing their shy dark nipples, and then some more until his head emerged onto the honey-coloured skin of her neck, pausing as his lips sensed the intense pulse under her chin and the depth of her breathing. Softly he pulled back the tresses of her scented hair to nuzzle the exposed ear and only now did she turn her head to kiss him longingly, silently, wrapping her arms around his neck.

When their lips fell apart she whispered:

Menjaga dalam perjalanan anda cinta saya.. i akan berada di sini untuk anda.” – “Take care on your journey my love.. I will be here for you.”

Before he could speak she put a finger over his lips:

“Ssssh, Sukma’s asleep over there.”

With a small purse of her lips, she indicated in the direction of their bamboo couch. Bandri turned his head and in the dimly lit corner of the room he could make out the still shape of Ayu’s younger sister, dressed in a sarong and stretched out on the couch, with a pillow under her pretty face and her eyelids closed.

“She was still sleepy this morning,” Ayu whispered close to his ear.

He turned his head back, stupefied and wordless, raising his eyebrows in understanding. Very quietly he kissed and hugged her some more until he got to his feet and stepped to the door, looking back before slowly opening, slipping out, and closing it.

He stood thinking for a few moments, then, standing on tiptoe he reached and pushed his right hand inside through the small gap above the door. Reaching down with the tip of his fingers he pushed across the top wooden bolt.

 

Ayu watched the top wooden bolt being slid across. She felt an emptiness grow, as she listened to the faint sounds of his farewell to her parents and then some more distant talk with her brother and then nothing – just the audible stillness of the room.

The room was still. Dust motes hung in the shafts of sunlight beaming through the gaps above the bamboo walls. She looked across at her sister. Sukma stirred in her sleep, and turned over.

Ayu lay under the batik bed sheet and breathed in long deep breaths of reflection, wanting to relive his goodbye. She wanted to relive his kisses onto her legs that slowly woke her – all of his kisses. She had remembered Sukma and could have stopped him. Perhaps she should have stopped him, but as long as he was quiet and the room was quiet? She trusted him and wanted to surrender herself to him.

She knew the journey could take many days. Until they came back Ayu would not know if her husband and brother were safe, or in harm’s way.

 

~~~~~

 

The two men made brisk progress along the familiar coastal path as it weaved between the forest and the mangrove swamps. Sometimes their route took them close by or onto sandy beaches. At times they encountered small river estuaries emptying into the bay. As they approached, flocks of teal duck made their brrtt-brrtt alarm calls, flying up and circling the mud flats.

Pygmy kingfishers with bright red beaks sat on branches over small streams. Green-backed kingfishers flashed along the river estuaries and purple bearded bee-eaters hunted bees foraging on the flowers. A host of other creatures sought each other and their food, trying also to avoid being fed on by others.

By the beaches, flamboyantly colourful maleo birds that were nesting on the hot sandy soil flew up, leaving large eggs buried under the sand. Such eggs are often collected by travellers to provide a good meal, but on this morning such easy pickings were overlooked as the two men swept past, strong young legs propelling them onwards towards their goal.

Comfortable in each other’s company, neither found much need to talk, pre-occupied as they were with the sheer enjoyment of physical exertion and their absorption in the lush, diverse environment. Out here in the wild they were kings, tribesmen at the peak of physical condition, knowledgeable and familiar with their surroundings.

About mid-morning they came to a steep cliff running down into the sea. Heading back into the forest for a distance, they clambered up a wooded slope, with Agung using the machete to clear their path. Perspiration shimmered off their skin as the extra exercise raised their temperatures. Cresting the top of the hill they opted to stop for a breather and refreshment, squatting on low boulders protruding from the woodland floor.

As they drank from pig-skin water containers, Agung said simply:

“There’s a pond with clean water not far from here.”

Bandri merely raised his eyebrows a little in acknowledgement of his remark but said nothing.

“We can fill our containers again there,” suggested his friend. “It’s not far from there to the path across the hills.” After a pause, Agung expanded his viewpoint on the pond: “We’re making good time.. It’s not far out of our way.. and it’s a good place.”

“Yes, that’s fine – let’s fill our containers there.”

Bandri had responded finally since his normally taciturn friend was evidently interested in this pond. He recalled that it was somewhere near here that Agung had got waylaid on the last trip.

“Isn’t there a small fishing village near here at Pantai?”

“Two houses and one boat.”

“I’ve never met the people..?” mused Bandri.

“Just one family – the man is ill, and his son does the fishing now.”

“Just two of them?”

“His wife works hard with a few crops, and gets fruit and so on. The girls do a lot, looking after their parents, helping with the fishing and everything. They have even been fixing the house. They’re two sisters – they look like sisters but they look different..”

At this point Agung’s unusually full description tailed off.

“Which one is the bird for?” Bandri asked with uncommon directness, still astounded by his friend’s explanation.

Agung let out a nervous chuckle, reaching into his pack to retrieve a roughly made small wooden box which he handed to Bandri. Untying the binding, Bandri opened the box to find not one, but two small cloth-wrapped items. In the first cloth he found the bronze bird. In the second cloth he discovered an equally well-crafted small gleaming bronze figure of a leaping dolphin, also with a loop at the back.

More nervous chuckling came from his friend.

“It’s beautiful,” uttered Bandri as it dawned on him that Agung had made gifts for both girls! “But how – !” he started to ask in astonishment. The phrase broke off uncompleted on Bandri’s lips; he needed to find out more before he made a judgement.

Agung proceeded to give a faltering but full explanation. On the last trip he had been stalking a buffalo when he came upon a crystal clear pond. After taking a drink, he then decided to wash his aching feet. As he sat there preoccupied with thoughts about the buffalo and his feet, two girls appeared with buckets to collect water.

Bandri tried to imagine the situation and how his friend might have reacted. He suspected that Agung would have been awkward and embarrassed, and surely the girls would have been scared. However, for some reason, the girls didn’t run away but stayed and talked to him. And perhaps more surprisingly to Bandri, Agung talked to them.

“One had a clasp in her hair made from wood – she is Lela, and the other had a seashell clasp, she is called Lyana,” said Agung confidently.

“Oh that’s fine, that could be helpful.. But your sisters keep swapping their ornaments – what if Lela and Lyana share their clasps?”

“Their sarongs were different and I think Lyana was the one with longer hair, and they both looked beautiful – when I see them again I will know their names,” Agung rambled on with enthusiasm. “I have been thinking that I would like a wife. You have Ayu, and you two are very happy together – I can see that.”

“Yes, yes that’s true – Ayu is a wonderful wife, I am very fortunate.”

“I will choose a wife.”

“Agung, can I tell you something?”

“Tell me what?”

“I hope we can meet Lela and Lyana today, but perhaps it’s not a good idea to ask one of them to marry you today – I mean – I’m sure they are lovely girls but I think you need to get to know them better first – so that you will learn which girl you like the best – and they will learn too what they feel – I mean which one is most interested in you.”

Agung listened quietly to this advice, rocking his head slowly up and down as he sat hunched on the boulder.

“But it’s alright to meet them today? – And you will come too?”

“Of course, I’m looking forward to meeting them. But before we go into Pantai we should put the machete in the sheath.”

“We should wash ourselves a bit?” suggested Agung, looking happier.

“Yes – but not in the pond!”

 

The two men walked slowly out from the forest into a cultivated clearing with neat rows of bushes and vegetables beside two bamboo buildings. A boy younger than Harta appeared from the first building and froze briefly when he saw them, before running back into the house. Almost immediately he reappeared accompanied by a tall man with greyish hair. The man held a large bow, while the boy held the quiver of arrows ready. Both wore the kain cloth around their waists and legs. Bandri noticed the Javanese scars on the man’s shoulders and that his lean body had a wiry strength about it. The tall thin man looked keenly at the strangers – his eyes coming to rest on the biggest man.

Bandri stood still, removed the bow from across his shoulder and put it deliberately on the ground, along with his spear. Agung did the same with his bow. At Bandri’s prompt, Agung put the machete in its sheath, untied it from the belt at his waist and put the impressive implement on the ground. Quivers of arrows and backpacks were put on the ground too. They walked slowly away from their equipment and stood still. Bandri dipped his head slowly, quickly followed by Agung. The tall man looked a little more relaxed, yet still wary.

Just then two girls in plain sarongs hurriedly appeared to stand close to the man. Perhaps they were a little younger than Ayu, thought Bandri. They both had long, thickly-ungroomed black hair. The man turned and was clearly trying to tell them to stay out of sight. A woman had followed straight after the girls and there ensued what appeared to be a heated debate, with frequent looks in the direction of Agung – who nervously watched the proceedings. Eventually, the boy walked out to speak to the two newcomers.

“My father says you can come in.” Bandri recognised an obscure Javanese dialect.

Dressed in a dirty kain, the bare-footed boy had rampant, black wavy hair that hung around his sun-tanned features. Very dark blackish-brown irises around the black pupils in the bright whites of his eyes looked intensely into their faces, darting from one man to the other and then back again.

The boy turned, and they followed him towards his family. As they approached the two girls went into the house. The tall man stood motionless, studying the two newcomers with an acute concentration, his grey-haired chest taking long deep breaths, as if in readiness for physical exertion. His longish face looked gaunt, which somehow seemed accentuated by his quite thin nose and diligent eyes. The woman had a solid build of average height; dressed in a sarong that had seen better days, she stayed firmly at the man’s side. Only then did Bandri notice that in one hand she held a bronze knife which had been concealed in the fold of her sarong. Her face showed no warmth either towards the two young men, but rather a fervent coldness as she glared at their approach.

Since no words had yet been spoken Bandri took the initiative, speaking in Javanese:

Hari yang baik, nama saya Bandri dan ini adalah kawan saya Agung.”- “Good day sir, my name is Bandri and this is my friend Agung.” There was an awkward silence and so he added: “Agung is the brother of my wife.”

Kula Eko, iki bojoku .”- “I am Eko, this is my wife.” The man spoke in a thick Javanese tongue with a deep voice. “My daughters tell me you are from Likupang?”

“Yes sir, we are on the way to Bitung,” Bandri replied, deciding to inform him of their reason for being in this vicinity.

Agung stood a pace or two behind him just outside the porch, his body and head still although his eyes glanced around. Bandri guessed that his friend hoped to catch sight of Lela and Lyana.

“Why do you go to Bitung?” the man demanded, the tone of his voice unsettling.

“Sir, we are going to find metal ore,” Bandri answered, being careful to keep in sight the woman who still held the knife firmly at her side. The man called Eko continued to glare at them coldly. In his best Javanese, Bandri continued in as calm a manner as he could muster “Agung is a smelter of the ore, and makes metal tools for us – we are building a boat.”

The man glanced at his wife, and then looked again at Bandri.

“My son has seen the big boat you are building – he can see it in the distance when he is fishing,” he said in a less hostile tone, and this time fluently in the Malay dialect. He signalled that they could come into the open porch in front of the house, where there were five crudely made wooden seats close to a family table.

Eko motioned for Bandri to to sit down. He turned to his son and told him to bring in the backpacks and the men’s equipment to put inside the porch. When Eko sat down he did so steadily with his hand holding the edge of the table. His wife who had been carefully observing the men, made a move as if to help her husband but he waved his hand, and instead she pulled a seat back for him with her free hand.

Bandri watched as the woman inspected Agung, who nervously dipped his head before raising it slowly to meet her glare. She motioned him to sit on a large wooden stool facing the table, beside Bandri.

The boy did two trips to collect each of the packs, and then a slightly longer trip to collect their weapons, coming back with his arms full and nearly dropping most of the load on the floor. His mother told him to be careful, reaching out to try and stop the machete in its sheath from hitting the floor – catching it in her free hand with surprising nimbleness by the handle just before it landed. Lifting it, clearly taken by its weight, she looked at Agung asking:

“Can my husband see this?”

Ya Wanita.. Ya.. Sudah tentu.” – “Yes Maam.. Yes.. Of course,” Agung stammered awkwardly.

Her husband received the implement from her, and pulled it from its sheath. With admiration he turned the gleaming slightly curved blade in front of him, with his wife looking over his shoulder. He made a couple of slow arching movements in the air with it, gave a thin smile, and then laid it with care on the table.

“A very good tool – who made it?”

Bandri opened a hand and indicated in Agung’s direction.

The woman reached over pointing to the blade where there were a series of markings running along the thicker unsharpened edge.

“What are these?” she asked, looking up at Agung.

“They were made by Bandri, Maam – he made up the marks. They mean – Kampong Likupang.” For the last two words Agung leaned over and carefully pointed out the phonetic symbols that Bandri had created to decorate the implement.

The woman stared at Agung for several moments. Bandri decided to remain silent. Eventually, she put her knife down on the table next to the machete, and then turned and motioned to her son, quietly telling him something, whereupon the boy disappeared into the house. She returned to sit beside her husband, looking at him first, before saying clearly in a louder voice:

“You must be thirsty – we will get you some drinks.”

“Our knife is getting smaller – maybe it’s wearing down,” Eko remarked dryly as he looked at the two implements on the table in front of him. “What did people do before they discovered bronze?”

As they waited for the drinks the four of them conversed about smelting ore into bronze. Bandri noticed that the woman insisted on pummelling Agung with questions, causing his friend to perspire profusely as he struggled to respond. After what appeared to be the end of the interrogation she added simply “My name is Listeri.”

At this juncture, the sisters appeared with vessels of liquids and some drinking mugs made from bamboo nodes. The girls walked silently behind Agung’s seat, the one on his left placing down a mug and the other on his right filling it, then coming around Bandri’s side and doing the same, then likewise for their parents, and finally walking quickly back into the house – with quiet but discernible giggling and hushing noises. The indignant looking boy sitting on the other seat had not been served and got up to chase after his sisters.

The man and his wife had watched their guests closely; especially Agung who they clearly knew was interested in their daughters. And naturally, the guests had studied the two young women, for they both appeared to be on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood. Both now had long combed, cascading black hair that obscured their faces as they leant forward but their smiles were evident, showing rows of pearl-white teeth. Their proportions seemed similar, although this was difficult to ascertain since the smarter sarongs they had just changed into had been arranged so generously that the cloth fully covered all but their dark smooth fore-arms. Their feminine hands were evidently used to hard work. Bandri thought now that one of them may be about the same age as Ayu, while the other girl was younger. He could see that Agung trembled with excitement, but pretended unsuccessfully to be more interested in the bamboo mug in front of him.

The man leant forward in his seat, speaking quietly in Malay:

“I am sorry to ask you so many questions – perhaps you will understand that we are on our own here. Some strangers cannot be trusted.. We used to live near Bitung.”

“There are many people in Bitung,” Bandri commented vaguely.

“When you told me you were going to Bitung it was very worrying for us. Please promise that you will not tell anyone in Bitung about us here.”

“We promise,” Agung volunteered. “Can we do something to help?”

“My daughters speak kindly of you, and I think I trust you – but now I cannot tell you more. Just be wary when you go to Bitung.”

As he spoke, Lestari left her seat and joined her daughters in the kitchen beside the house. After his wife had left them, Eko leaned a little further towards them over the table.

“Many tribesmen do not have the same respect for women that you do,” he said in a confidential tone. Then he rose stiffly to his feet and walked slowly around to the kitchen, leaving the two friends sat in the porch on their own.

Bandri and Agung neither spoke to each other nor looked at each other. Through a narrow path Bandri got a glimpse of a small pebbled and white sand beach. Between the vegetation on each side of the path he could just see beyond to the jade-blue waters of the bay, and across to Bangka Island on the far horizon. He could now hear the waves hitting the beach beyond for the first time since they arrived, and thought how the world around them was vast and often unknowable.

Not too long later, both Lela and Lyana appeared with plates of food and more drinks, alerting the men to a new atmosphere. Both women had changed their hairstyles, one holding her hair back with a carved wooden clasp tied with twine, and the other using an ornate seashell also bound to the hair with twine. They did look very similar, both having pleasant oval faces and smiling eyes, yet slightly different from each other in the curves of their noses and in other small ways.

Their brother also appeared to have been given the task of looking after them, and was asking if they needed anything. Bandri sensed that the young women tarried, as if wishing to stay after serving the food.

“Please – if it’s alright – can you sit with us?”

Agung’s expression almost pleaded for them to agree. Demurely, they took the seats vacated by their parents. The four of them sat self-consciously aware of the newness of the situation, saying nothing for a few moments, until one of the ladies spoke with a clear voice in Javanese:

“Agung told us your name is Bandy.”

Wondering how this had happened – maybe by mistake or by design on Agung’s part – Bandri attempted to correct the error:

“Ba-n-D-R-I”

“Baandreee”

“Well yes – are you Lela?”

“No, Lyana.”

Agung, evidently feeling more confident now, introduced everybody:

“Lyana and Lela, this is my good friend Bandri from Likupang.”

Bandri glanced towards the kitchen, trying to see Eko and Listeri.

“Our parents are not hungry this morning, and want you to eat and refresh yourselves for your long journey,” Lyana reassured him.

The conversation in a mixture of both dialects progressed gently on from the introductions, although it appeared that Lela was less forthcoming than her sister who appeared to be a little older. The men told them about Likupang and what happened with the launching of the boat, and then in great detail the story of the pig getting inside the house, bringing enjoyment and laughter to all at the table. The boy, whose name they learnt was Raharjo, listened keenly and by now had taken the remaining seat.

As they talked, Bandri observed how closely the two sisters gazed at Agung, occasionally glancing at each other as if silently communicating their opinion of him. This was new territory for his friend. Bandri was still bemused as to how Agung had found himself in this circumstance, and worried now about what would happen when he produced the gifts. Bandri could easily understand why they would be interested in his friend, but he presumed there might be some competition for his attention.

Lyana appeared remarkably self-confident in her manner, whereas Lela seemed quite shy in comparison. Lela self-conciously fluttered her fine eyelashes and dropped her gaze when Bandri looked at her; she had more delicate features with a cute nose and dimpled cheeks when she smiled. Like their younger brother, the sisters had striking dark-brown irises that were almost black, set within the bright whites of their eyes, standing out well in their healthy brown complexions. Perhaps Lela was prettier, thought Bandri, although Lyana was very attractive too. However, he reminded himself that he was just an observer in these matters; he was married and fully committed to Ayu.

“Can I look at this?” asked Lyana, referring to the machete which was still lying on the table where Eko had placed it.

Using both hands, she inspected the heavy implement, showing it to her sister. The two young women observed their honeyed reflections in the polished bronze blade. Having missed the earlier explanation, Lyana asked about the inscription, and so this was explained.

“Can you make marks for other names?” Lela asked in her lighter voice. She flashed a coy smile at Bandri.

“I can try – would you like some symbols for your name?”

When all three nodded in eager affirmation, Bandri asked Raharjo if he could find some big smooth grey pebbles from the beach and something white to make marks with. The boy went to his task, returning a short time later with a few large pebbles and a piece of bleached white staghorn coral.

Choosing a smooth flattish pebble, Bandri scratched two whitish symbols to represent “Le-la”, and handed it over the table to the young lady he now knew as Lela. She received it with joy and thanks, showing it excitedly to her sister. By now he had marked a second suitable pebble with three symbols for “Ly-an-a” and passed this across the table.

The young women were transformed into ecstatic giggling girls, each comparing the symbols for their names, holding the rocks as if they were precious treasure. Agung picked up the largest pebble and wrote the symbols for “Pa-n-tai”, adding to the girls’ wonder.

Now Raharjo wanted his name, but the only pebble left was too small.

Bandri looked across at the happy conversation between Agung, Lela and Lyana about the inscriptions. Taking this opportunity he got up to walk with the boy to try and find a smooth long pebble for his name. As he left the table, he noticed that around the corner of the house from their kitchen, Eko and Lestari had been listening to the events unfolding in their porch.

Lestari looked across at him briefly with tears in her eyes, and smiled.

 

On the beach the man and the boy hunted for a suitable pebble. Raharjo had a great many questions for his new friend. Bandri answered as many as he could, or thought he should, and then asked the boy a few in return.

Bandri learned that Eko had been getting weaker for about a year, and now had a lot of pain especially when he walked. He didn’t eat much and they worried a lot about him. Raharjo was very young when they came to Pantai and couldn’t remember where they were before. Despite his tender years, the boy felt he needed to do everything he could to look after his family.

“Do you collect honey for your sick father?” asked Bandri.

“I haven’t collected it from the big bees – but I get some sour honey from the little black bees that don’t sting.. Father used to bring some smooth honey home from the big bees before he got ill, but I’m afraid of being stung.”

“The little stingless bees make honey that we put in cooking – and we use it for putting on red skin and cuts, but I like to eat it too,” said Bandri. “The best honey is from the big bees.”

“I like the little bee honey too – except they fly up my nose!” The boy laughed, and added wistfully “Father likes smooth honey best.”

“We can get some smooth honey from the big bees now if you like?” suggested Bandri, knowing that Agung would be happy to stay a little longer at Pantai. “I saw a bee house just near to your place.”

Along with Raharjo, Bandri approached Lestari and asked her if it would be alright to show her son how to collect some honey from a colony nearby.

“That would be a good thing,” she replied. “I think my husband will eat some honeycomb.”

They returned to the porch, where Agung was getting a lesson on how to thread twine though the hair and knot it around the end of a clasp without being able to look at what you were doing. The big man listened with rapt attention as if it was some instruction on metalworking.

“We’re going to find some honey,” Bandri announced, casually picked up the machete. “We won’t be long,” he added, raising his eyebrows at his friend.

Alarmed at the prospect of having to cope on his own, Agung looked aghast at Bandri, but accepted the situation with good grace.

 

Walking back into the forest they soon came to the old tree trunk lying on the ground that Bandri had noticed earlier. From a small hole underneath the rotting log could be seen small honeybees darting in and out of the entrance.

Bandri pulled the boy away from standing directly in front of the entrance, so as not to block the path of the bees as they carried on with their business.

“You can get close, but don’t get right in front of the entrance to the nest – then they won’t bother you.”

“They are so fast! – They just come out and wait a little bit by the hole, then shoot straight out.. and there – another one coming straight back to the hole and it goes right inside – how do they do that?”

“I don’t know how they find their way back to the same hole – but it’s wonderful isn’t it?.. Where do you think they go in the forest?”

“Are they going to get honey?”

“The honey is in the honeycomb inside – I don’t think they’re getting honey from the forest, but they make it when they get back.”

The boy listened keenly as Bandri explained.

“If you look at the flowers you see the bees all over them – they land on a flower and then go to another flower – so I think they are getting their food from the flowers.”

“But the flowers don’t have honey in them,” the boy said, shaking his head and his curls of wild hair.

“When I looked at the flowers they were landing on, I was looking for the honey – but you’re right they don’t have any honey – but there are other things inside the flower, like little yellow dust and sometimes you can see some liquid – so I think that’s what they’re feeding on.. Look at that one coming back – can you see the yellow blob – that’s the yellow dust stuck to its legs.”

“So they make the honey with the liquid and yellow dust?”

“That’s right,” answered Bandri, impressed by the boy’s alertness and curiosity.

He explained how they needed to get green leaves and dry sticks. While Raharjo did this he cleared away the vegetation in front of the entrance with the machete carefully so as not to disturb the bees. Once the smoker was ready, he demonstrated how to light it.

With the smoker under way, the agitated bees took avoiding action and Bandri started to cut into the log with the machete to open up the entrance. The soft wood gave way easily and soon a hole was made big enough so that the colony inside could be clearly seen.

“There are masses of them running and wiggling all over!” Raharjo said in wonderment.

“They cover their honeycomb with their bodies as they make their honey – and you will see some of the comb has got the young bees inside – but we need to get some more smoke in there and then they will fly away.”

The two immersed themselves in the activity, enveloped in pleasant smelling wood smoke. Bees and the life of the forest thrummed around them. After the bees had mostly vacated the hole, Bandri reached in slowly to gently prise off the closest honey-filled comb. He lifted it out, giving the comb to the boy who inspected it and placed it in the basket.

One by one they took the combs out. Bandri showed him that the fourth, fifth and sixth combs had the eggs and developing bees inside. Once all nine combs had been collected, they gathered up their equipment. Just before they left the still buzzing honeybees, Bandri told Raharjo:

“We just need to say thank you to the bees for giving us their honey.”

 

When the two of them approached the house they could hear the sound of conversation coming from the porch, where everyone else was now seated around the table. As he stepped into the porch Bandri was taken aback to see the shiny bronze bird on a length of twine around the neck of the mother, Lestari! And then even more so to see the gleaming dolphin hanging as a pendant on Eko’s hairy chest!

As the seated group burst into laughter, he realised the joke was on him.

It appears that what had been his greatest fear had somehow been unfounded. Ever since he saw the two ornaments he foresaw a social calamity when Agung blundered into offending both girls and their parents – by offering tokens of his love to both women at the same time! He wished he had witnessed the scene but now he would have to be content with Agung’s explanation, after they continued their journey.

The pendants were taken off and given back to their rightful owners. The young women put them over their heads to dangle on the fabric of their sarongs, and then they were taken off again so that he and Raharjo could see what they looked like on their fine plaited coconut twine, and then swapped so that Lela and Lyana could appreciate each of them again.

Bandri also noticed that the hair clasps had been swapped again. Seeing the state of Agung’s long hair he wondered what his friend would have looked like with the ornaments.

Mindful of the need to continue their journey, Bandri said that they should really be going, suggesting that they could visit again on the way back. With the prospect of seeing the sisters again soon, Agung also agreed that they needed to leave and thanked the family for their welcome.

Laden with more food for their journey, Lyana, Lela and Raharjo escorted them as far as the freshwater pond, which Bandri did agree was very clean and clear. After everybody said many ‘Good byes’ and ‘Thank yous’, the two men walked away along a winding narrow path, soon to emerge from behind a rock onto a path they knew from earlier trips to Bitung.

 

Once they were well away from Pantai, Bandri said positively:

“You seemed to be getting on well with the girls – and with Eko and Listeri.. Did everything go well when we went for the honey?”

Biasanya tidak” – “Not usually.”

Bandri recognised one of his friend’s favourite phrases which often left him puzzled, but might betray hidden meaning.

“But they really liked the bronze gifts, didn’t they?”

“I think so.”

After a short while, Bandri’s desire to find out what had happened with the gifts got the better of him:

“Tell me then – when we went to collect honey – how did you give the bird and the dolphin to the girls?”

Agung didn’t answer straight away.

“I wasn’t sure what I should say – I was on my own,” he said eventually. “Do you know how difficult it was?.. And it was confusing with the Java – but I really wanted to give the animals to the girls.”

Bandri felt worried now:

“What did you tell them?” But then he felt guilty at interrogating his friend: “Sorry, it’s your affair,” he apologised. “I shouldn’t ask.”

At this point in their travels they came upon a flattish sandy area close to the shore with a few smooth boulders embedded in the ground. Agung slowed up and stopped with a sigh, then sat himself down on a convenient boulder. Bandri followed his example.

“It’s just that after I put the box on the table, and they took out the little animals – they looked at me so much that I didn’t know what I really said.. I wanted them not to think that I liked them so much – just that the gifts were not so important – not like I was asking them to marry me.. But maybe there was a misunderstanding.”

“Alright – but I still don’t understand what you’re worried about?”

Agung sighed again, before he said:

“I told them I made gifts for other girls as well.”

Stifling a laugh, Bandri averted his face for a few moments, until he desperately tried to change the subject:

“It’s remarkable!” he attempted to muse. “They’ve been hidden there all that time.”

“Not usually!” Agung’s demeanour was uncertain.

“The land changes here – the cliff and the way the pond appears when you don’t expect it,” pondered Bandri more believably. “It’s like there’s a crack in the rocks. The path along the coast goes past Pantai – so nobody goes there.”

“They had what they needed,” sighed his friend, still unsettled.

“They’re lucky that the Bahoi tribesmen haven’t found them,” said Bandri trying to be positive, but then realised his mistake.

Agung shuffled uncomfortably, muttering through his teeth:

“Where else could they go?.. Bangka?!”

“Bangka Island’s quite big,” said Bandri, trying to lighten the tone. “I don’t think anyone lives there yet.”

“Do we move Likupang to Bangka?” Agung groaned. “And after Bangka where do we go?” Not waiting for an answer he went on “If Bahoi saw us move to Bangka they could follow – and we have to get ore from Bitung.. We have to make bronze.”

“If we move Likupang it’s best to join with our Malay people in Manado,” said Bandri as he thought again about the future for Likupang. “We can’t use the path by the coast and going through the forests is too dangerous for the children.. And for mother, she’s too weak now – she wouldn’t make it.”

“Java can track you in the forest,” stated Agung.

Bandri sighed deeply, thinking that if only they didn’t have to worry about the Javanese tribesmen everything would be fine. “We have to understand the Java – some of them are good – like Eko’s family. If only the rest of them could learn respect for girls.”

“Most of them are pigs,” Agung sniffed in contempt. “They do what animals do!”

“Bahoi can’t stop us in their small boats,” Bandri said, determined to take a positive tack in this achingly serious discussion. “We’ll make the big boat strong enough. We can take it round the coast – next dry season, when the winds and currents are alright.”

Agung nodded slowly and grunted decidedly:

“We get ore – then get back.”

Bandri raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement, his heart heavy with anxiety as he thought about having to leave Ayu and the family to collect rock.

 

[][] [] *5* Bitung

They needed to think again about their route, since it was already well past mid-day and there would be a hard journey ahead of them to reach Bitung. Scraping a stick in the smooth sand at their feet, Bandri outlined the rough shape of the coastline, including the two islands outside the bay and the long island near Bitung in the south. Likupang was marked with a large grey pebble beside the river. Right now they were by the bay – marked with a cross – not that far from home. With the machete Agung scratched a large cross for Bitung.

Looking southward they could see the summit of Tongkoko, and further away the conical peak of Klabat – these were drawn in too. For good measure Bandri added the approximate positions of the rising and setting sun.

“There are Java villages by the sea on the other side of Tongkoko,” said Bandri remembering their last trip. “We were lucky not to be seen.”

“Bad spirits near Klabat,” muttered Agung. “But it’s quicker.”

“Hilly in places,” pondered Bandri. “Unless we stick to the valley between Tongkoko and Klabat which would be longer.”

“Straight is quicker,” grunted Agung pointing southwards with his machete.

 

They felt more of an urgency now to get to Bitung, collect ore, and get back as soon as they could. Groups of men sometimes explored along the coast, or travelled for other reasons, just as they were doing. Eko’s warning about tribesmen in the Bitung region did not make them fear for their own safety, but for the safety of those in Pantai and Likupang.

Most settlements were fishing villages; there were fewer people inland. Making their way through the dense forest was hardly ever easy. Midges, mosquitoes, leeches and other biting nuisances were an occupational hazard. The inner forest was more humid, especially in the valleys. They noticed the beauty of the forest less as they battled their way through it.

As the light faded they had progressed less than half way to Bitung. They stopped for a rest after a long hill climb, hoping for a clear moonlit night so that they may be able to push on. But the moon had yet to rise.

Beside a streamlet they made an encampment, but didn’t bother with a fire. They sat and ate the food they had brought with them. A cacophony of nocturnal sounds filled the warm air.

Innumerable animals called, thrummed and flicked. The shimmering rasp of crickets mingled with the chirping of cicadas, the warbling of frogs and the guffaw of geckos. Multitudes of flying foxes jostled and twittered in their evening roosts after gorging on nectar, pollen, blossoms and fruit. In the fragrant richness of the forest canopy macaque monkeys grunted, cucus marsupials chortled and palm civets squeaked. Hidden in the dank lushness of the undergrowth were shy anoa buffalo and snorting babirusa pig-deer. Now and again, the louder noises of feeding and mating scintillated the darkness – scuffling, howling or the screeching of some exotic bird.

Breaking off some suitable twigs, they chewed them to help clean out their teeth. The coconut net hammocks were strung up between convenient trunks, with resin rubbed into the rope supports to discourage ants and the like. They climbed in and dozed in the mild night air. Bandri later remembered dreaming about being on a big boat at sea when something struck him hard on the side of the head with a loud noise:

Bangun!” – “Wake up!”

In a heartbeat, he fell out his hammock onto the rocky ground. Dazed, he staggered to his feet as Agung pulled him backwards. Coming to his senses, he stared in disbelief as an enormous snake coiled its way down the trunk and over the freshly vacated hammock. The long patterned creature, heavy and thicker than a man’s thigh, slithered its way back into the undergrowth. The reticulated python was a respected forest spirit and its sleek muscular body had a sinister beauty.

“That has to be the biggest I’ve seen,” mumbled Bandri in his stupor, rubbing his throbbing ear. “Longer than your crocodile.”

“She could smell you,” Agung remarked dryly. “I had to hit something.”

 

The stars multiplied above and between the trees, to be outshone by the three-quarter moon climbing above the horizon. Under this celestial canopy the nocturnal rainforest simmered with life. The hum of a disconnected cacophony and movement of milky moon-shadows merged into an all pervasive organism.

As the light improved Bandri considered getting underway again.

“Do you think there’s enough light?”

“There’s a lot of shadow – some bad snakes come out at night,” advised Agung. “You could step on one.”

Bandri chuckled at Agung’s wry sense of humour, conscious that his friend had probably saved him from being a meal for the giant python. But the nagging worry of leaving Ayu and the others made Bandri restless. He felt full of energy now and couldn’t sleep.

There was a rocky outcrop near their brief encampment.

“If we get to the top of those rocks, we can get a better view of the land – maybe there’s a clear path we can follow?” suggested Bandri. “What if we stay by the river in the valley?”

From their packs they dug out the simple pig-skin leg coverings. They tied them on so that their ankles were also given some protection, and then scrambled up until they were above the trees.

An awe-inspiring moonlit sight greeted them. Across the valley, silhouetted against the star-studded western sky, the mountainous volcanic bulk of Klabat rose up in the ghostly light like a massive octopus with the ridges curving out as tentacles. The bright moon shone over their shoulders, casting the mens’ own drawn-out shadows down the rocky slope which descended into the canopy of the rainforest and the winding valley floor. Rearing up behind them was the mass of Tongkoko spreading out into eerie shadows.

The rasping calls of crickets dominated the hallucinogenic murmur that surrounded them. Dark outlines of bats and nightjars whirled in the night sky. The moist air held the scents of countless plants and animals. Against the dark shadows of vegetation, fireflies turned off and on again. There were no lights or sounds of human habitation. In this land they appeared to be the only people alive.

As they stood together, they both felt the ground shake a little and then cease.

“Tongkoko is snoring again,” Bandri quipped.

“We should be doing that,” moaned Agung.

“Look – if we take it steadily down this rock slope until we get to the bottom of the valley we should be able to find our way.”

“There are so many shadows,” said Agung. “We need things to hold onto.”

The two ended up agreeing to work their way down the left edge of the slope which seemed better lit, and where they could steady their descent with scrubby vegetation. Slipping and grasping, working sideways, one leg down at a time, they descended into the forest trees that covered the lower slopes.

In the dimmer light amongst the trees, they lit torches which threw a warm flickering light onto the surrounding vegetation. Hacking a way through the undergrowth and vines took time. The flames and the noise the two men made helped to drive away potentially dangerous tree snakes, tarantulas, scorpions and other animals that hunt their prey at night. Eventually, they found the river in the valley floor; turning left they followed its path between Tongkoko and Klabat.

After several hours the moonlight faded. There would be a few hours of darkness; now they could sleep before a fresh start at sunrise. A raised place was chosen and surveyed for any obvious threats. Hammocks were fixed and climbed into.

 

~~~~~

 

In the mid-morning of the second day they eventually crested the last hill, their muscled physiques shining with sweat. On the descending slopes before them lay the barren exposed ore fields. Beyond the ore fields stretched the mining and fishing town of Bitung. From their vantage point could be seen three large boats, and many small boats close by the shore. A glittering deep turquoise strait of seawater lay between the mainland and the green island of Palua.

The green-tinted ore could be found on the rocky, rutted and ravined southern slopes of the volcano. Lumps might be found directly on the ground, or more likely in exposed gullies that had been washed out by heavy rains. Some miners from the town worked together in teams to dig and gouge out an area that appeared rich in ore. Around the ore-fields were a few rough native houses and shelters for mine workers and smelters.

Heat haze smoked the blue sky and the fierce tropical sun beat down upon it all like the bronzesmith’s hammer; in the mirage of wavering air, the ore fields on the southern slopes of Tongkoko seemed to tremble to the blows. The weight of ore they could carry may be enough for smelting into perhaps two knife blades. They had nothing to trade for ready-smelted bronze so, until their boat was ready, they needed to carry as much ore back home as they could.

“We can try over there first?” said Bandri, indicating to where they found good ore on the last trip.

Apart from a few small pieces, it appeared the area had been picked clean. More luck came when they climbed down into a small canyon, and then into an eroded gulley at the bottom. They picked away at the walls of the gulley, which yielded some sizable pieces of quite green ore.

“What’s this?” said Bandri, holding up a shiny yellow rock he had just dug out: about the size of a little finger. “It’s only small – but heavy,” he added, passing it to his friend.

Agung weighed it in his hand and scratched it with the tip of the machete.

“It’s quite soft – it’s not bronze. I’ve never seen it before.”

Bandri held it again, smiling as he rubbed it with his fingers.

“It’s like a piece of honey,” he said, putting it in the deep pocket of his kathok. “I’ll give it to Ayu.”

 

They found no more good quality ore at that site, but their packs were only half full. Under the tropical sun, they felt the burden of heat scorching down from overhead. They needed shelter.

Lugging their packs across the gravelly slope, they found a small wooded valley. As they drew closer, they could see a few native houses beside a stream. No-one appeared to be around. In the shade of a tree they rested, drinking the stream water and munching on raw vegetables, fruit and honeycomb.

Bisa kita?” – “Can you help us?” said a quiet voice.

Looking up they saw a frail-looking elderly woman, standing nearby. Her presence had come as a surprise, for neither of them had noticed her before. It seems she had walked over to them from the houses not far away. An intense sadness was imprinted on her wisen features.

Both of them stood up, and tried to speak at the same time.

“What is it? – Are you alright?..”

“Yuli.. We want to find my grand-daughter Yuli – this morning – my son is looking for Yuli – and our neighbours are looking.”

“Where did she go?” The question seemed the best that Bandri could offer at this unexpected turn of events.

Wong njupuk Yuli.” – “Men took Yuli.”

The words hung in the air, as both of them thought about it. Neither of the friends wanted to accept into their consciousness the possible implications of the simple short statement.

“They took Yuli. We think men from Bitung – this morning,” she said between pitiful sobs. “We don’t know who they are. They took Yuli.”

The two friends listened quietly as she spoke in halting Javanese, trying to understand the trauma her family had been going through. Her grand-daughter was a young girl. The girl had been washing the clothes near their house when her mother heard the screams, and witnessed the abduction by four men. It happened so quickly.

The friends exchanged glances. Bandri could sense that Agung was thinking of Suk who was of a similar age. Mel was not much older. They knew that some tribesmen acted to satisfy their base cravings, taking what or who they wanted.

The girl’s father had been working on the ore fields, and there were few other people in their little village. The explanation exhausted the old woman, who they persuaded to sit and eat. The friends needed to step away from her to talk quietly together.

“This is so bad!” moaned Agung in anguish. “The poor girl.”

“It’s just the thing Eko warned us about – there could be a lot of them, and we probably can’t do anything,” reasoned Bandri. “We’re strangers here.. We wouldn’t be able to recognise any of them – and we need to get back.”

“But we can’t leave her.”

The two fell silent as they grappled with the dilemma.

“We should try and help if we can,” admitted Bandri, knowing that Agung was right. “But we need to be careful. If we can’t help, at least we tried.”

“Alright,” said Agung, satisfied at a compromise. “Then we go home.”

They decided to try and follow where the girl’s father, mother and neighbours had gone in pursuit of the abductors. The lone old lady gave them several names and descriptions to try and remember. Leaving their backpacks in the woman’s house, they set off in the direction of the town, taking their weapons.

 

The two young men walked quickly down the tracks towards the town, which took them past another village. They made enquiries but no further information was forthcoming. The locals seemed alarmed at their arrival, and only the older people were visible. Dogs barked. They had seen dogs before, although they didn’t have any at Likupang.

“I don’t like the noise they make,” Agung said grimly. “But dogs can warn us.”

“It would be alright if we looked after them well – these dogs are so scrawny – they look like they have some disease.. We could breed some teal ducks at the edge of the village – they should make a loud noise.”

“And we could eat them!” suggested Agung more optimistically.

Neither had gone down into Bitung before. The curved slopes of the Tongkoko volcano provided a pleasant backdrop for the town, beside the seafront where the boats were moored. Seen from a distance it looked peaceful and pleasant. The town of Bitung however was more populated, noisy and bustling than any place they had experienced before. Smoky smelting works lined one street and odorous fish handlers lined another. Poky alleyways led off to more houses and marketplaces, mostly made out of coconut lumber. Many buildings were of two stories and a few were three stories.

People conversed, argued, bartered and traded – a madding crowd of men, boys, older women and very young children. Stray dogs led in the shade or trotted about. Human and animal smells filled the air: smoke, fish, cooking, rotting matter and sewage – foul and fetid in the heat.

“I don’t see any young women around,” remarked Bandri. “Maybe they stay inside.”

“Or girls,” muttered Agung.

They stopped at a large fish merchants, admiring the wealth of goods on offer. There were glistening and coloured fish of every description: sea bass, tuna, jack fish, octopus, shell fish, shark fins and hunks of larger animals.

“Dolphin,” grunted Agung.

“They eat everything,” commented Bandri with sadness. The Malay believed that dolphins were harbingers of good spirits.

Punapa?” – “What do you want?” asked the merchant. He was of middle age and middle height. Apart from being unusually fat, there was nothing particularly notable about his appearance.

“We are looking at the parrot fish,” said Bandri, unprepared for the question.

“Strangers – What have you got?” said the merchant, looking at them dubiously. Their kathoks marked them out as two Malay in a Javanese town.

Bandri realised that the merchant was expecting a trade.

“What do we need?”

“A mark or some goods, or bronze,” the man replied, looking at the sheath hung at Agung’s waist.

“What is a ‘mark’?” enquired Bandri.

The man pulled out a rectangular piece of wood from under the counter. He held it up for their inspection. It had a distinct pattern of marks scratched into the surface.

“The tribe of owning men make these,” he informed them. “Do you have something to exchange.”

The friends exchanged glances. Bandri looked back at the man and shook his head.

“No sir, we are are sorry.. We wanted to ask another question?”

“You are strangers,” stated the fish merchant.

“Yes sir – but we want to help people from this place who have lost their daughter.”

The man’s reaction informed the friends that this was not a subject he was comfortable discussing, but before anything else took place there was a commotion at the end of the long counter. A woman was being held by two men. She wore a loose-fitting dark blue sarong and head-cover, which fell back revealing her to be elderly and thin.

“She stole it – She’s stolen a fish!” one of the young men was proclaiming. “She’s got it in there.”

“ I haven’t stolen anything!” the woman pleaded, vainly trying to free her wrists. “My daughter gave it to me.. I haven’t -”

“Hold her Yasan!” the other man spoke over her protests and delved into the folds of her sarong, pulling out a jack fish.

The merchant had hurried towards the scene, while the two friends looked on. They were astonished by the intense agitation created. It was an unexceptional fish – the counter was heaped with them and they had seen them on other stalls too.

“It’s just a fish,” exclaimed Bandri. “She says she didn’t steal it.”

“Be warned – you are strangers!” the merchant declared. “The men say she stole it – and there are two of them!”

“Owner, what do you want us to do?” asked the one called Yasan, heedless to the continuing protests of the woman whose anguished eyes looked into Bandri’s own.

A crowd had already gathered, mostly of men, some carrying weapons. “Take her to the tribe!” called a man from the crowd, and then another echoed the same. Bandri heard someone mutter “They will be rewarded.”

“We didn’t see her steal it,” Bandri declared, feeling desperately afraid for the woman now. “Why should she steal it?”

“There are many fish,” added Agung. “She didn’t steal.”

“She stole it! – I saw it!” the man called Yasan insisted to a rumble of acceptance from the surrounding men. Bandri looked at this Yasan, about the same age as himself but more swarthy, wearing a white and garnet-red kain with a dagger scabbard at his waist. Thick black hair crowned a handsome, proud face. The young man’s eyes stared back at him with an arrogant hostility that made Bandri’s own eyes almost weep with sadness. Yasan started appealing to the crowd “Who are they!? They’re not from here!”

“You are strangers!” the merchant repeated, glaring now at the two Malay men. “Don’t interfer!”

The crowd started to jostle. “Take her to the tribe!” called yet another man.

Inside himself Bandri’s emotion began to boil as he felt the rage of confusion at the cold justice of the crowd. He raged at their selfish greed. Breathing in he readied himself to plea mercy with the merchant and the crowd, but just then he felt a large hand on his shoulder. Close to his ear Agung warned “Be careful.”

“Alright,” announced the merchant. “The tribe will decide.”

At once the woman was hauled away by Yasan and his accomplice through the jeering crowd. The merchant turned towards the Malay men.

“What will happen to her?” asked Bandri, trying to sound consolatory.

“I cannot answer any more of your questions,” the merchant declared in a tone of dejection. “You must leave.”

Many cast suspicious looks in their direction as the Malay men edged their way clear of the crowd. Walking away from the bustle of the town centre, they soon found themselves in a quieter street where they decided to enquire again about the missing girl at a smelting works.

Bandri’s enquiry was made in his best Javanese dialect. The man in charge of the works looked first at Agung who was pre-occupied, gazing at all the bronze-making activity and equipment. Bandri followed the man’s eyes as he noticed the impressive sheath holding Agung’s machete. Using a rag to wipe the sweat from his bald head, the man turned to look at Bandri.

“It’s bad for the father,” he remarked. “But I can’t help you young man”

“Thank you sir,” said Bandri, even though he found the man’s answer unsympathetic.

“Let our sun be on you,” the man said, followed by a condescending smile. He turned his back on Bandri and continued scraping the excess bronze off a freshly cast knife blade.

As they left the smelting works Bandri noticed three burly men standing in a huddle nearby. They wore kains of white and garnet-red, all armed with knives in scabbards at their waist.

“Bitung!?” Bandri muttered. “We were warned about this place.”

The incidents had greatly affected the moral of the two friends who now drifted towards the seafront. Neither felt like debating the nature of their reception in Bitung; instead they sought distraction by discussing the rigging of a big boat moored close to the pier.

Nggabungake kita kanggo ngombe?!” –“Join us for a drink?!” came an affable shout.

Three men were sitting in the shade on fishing nets holding containers of toddy from which they drank. The friends understood the invitation partly because a couple of them beckoned them over with vague waves of their arms. Bandri felt relieved that at least some men from this town appeared more sociable, even though they might be drunk.

“We should get to know them a bit before we ask about the girl – don’t talk about what happened in the town.”

“Be careful,” grunted Agung. “We need to get back.”

Over toddy they introduced each other. One of them called Tirto was darkly sunburned, old and lean. The other two, Bambang and Wira, were middle aged men wearing kains each with dagger scabbards.

“We’re sailors, can’t you see?” said Wira in an easy manner, waving a hand which was missing a finger towards the boat they had been looking at. “They make sure we look out for the boat.”

“What about you two?” asked the man called Bambang, who Bandri noticed was dark skinned and had a scar across his right cheek which looked like a wound from a knife – maybe something that he had sustained in his youth.

“We’re fishermen, but we’re building a bigger boat now,” offered Bandri. “We were looking at the rigging.”

“Where are you from?” asked Bambang.

“A place called Likupang.”

The three sailors seemed to accept this information. Bandri was glad of that; he didn’t want to give them too much information.

“I used to sail on a big boat like that – we travelled a long way north one time to a big island,” Tirto said in a matter a of fact manner. The other two men from Bitung smiled knowingly. The old man added: “The winds blew us there!”

“He’s full of stories – but we don’t believe all of them!” laughed Bambang.

“The current goes north too,” said Wira, waving his hand in the general direction. “If you get too far away you won’t get back.”

“It’s true I tell you!” Tirto replied earnestly. “With a good boat you can sail back if you know how – we got back but it took many days.”

Bandri was enjoying this encounter and intrigued by the prospect of discovering new lands.

“What island did you find?”

Tirto described several islands, some small with just a few trees surrounded by dangerous coral reefs, one big mountainous island where they had been able to stay for a time to replenish their stocks, and a fascinating account of an island with a magical apparition.

“We saw an immense fountain of water, fire and smoke with rocks in the sea a long way off, which made a giant breathing sound – very loud – like banua.. banua-wuhu ..It was.. kuwoso lan ayu!”

Hearing his wife’s name in Javanese, but not properly understanding the context Bandri enquired further: “Tirto, please what do you mean – kuwoso lan ayu?”

perkasa dan cantik” – “mighty and beautiful” Tirto explained in a Malay dialect. Then he added: “We called the place Banua – some of us called it Banua Wuhu.”

The two friends were enthralled by the tale of the ancient seaman. For a while, as Tirto recounted his adventures the two friends forgot the reason they were there.

“You’re Malay,” interjected Bambang, appearing to be weary of the old man’s tales. “Why did you come into the town?”

Bandri told them about the abduction of the girl called Yuli.

“I am glad to only have sons – if I had daughters I feel I would not be able to leave home – some tribes around here get women this way. They will keep the girl locked up and force her to marry.”

Bambang’s words formed the impression that it was a common problem in the Bitung region. The discussion had become sad and angry. Bandri and Agung felt the anger towards men that so destroyed happiness, love and lives.

“If you call it marriage,” groaned Wira. “It’s rape! Then what will the girl do when she’s pregnant and she has a child? – It’s difficult to leave then.” Bambang muttered supporting curses as Wira went on “What’s worse is that they will take fresh young girls, even if they already have women – because the women they have already hate them!. Some girls have killed themselves – some say they killed the girls!”

“A man’s word counts for the word of two women,” muttered Bambang. “That’s the custom.”

“It’s so bad that they have not learned to respect women,” said Bandri mournfully, thinking about the poor woman with the fish. The horror of girls being abducted and raped was more than he could bear to let into his consciousness.

“They’re pigs!” growled Agung who fingered the handle of his machete.

Meanwhile, Tirto had been listening and observing.

“I can hear you all my friends,” the old man said with a steady voice. “You’re right – of course you are. But be careful what you say around here! There are many of them and they can be vengeful. Did you ask in the town?”

“Yes,” answered Bandri. “At two places.” He told them about the incident with the man called Yasan.

“Yasan! – The senior’s son?” exclaimed Wira. “You fools!”

“They proclaim the sun but their hearts are dark!” Tirto muttered.

“You must leave right now,” Wira told them. “Don’t go back through the town!”

“Go that way.” Bambang pointed along the seafront. “When you get to that banyan tree there is a path past the town. If they ask we’ll say you went the other way.”

With barely time for thanks, the two Malay men were promptly dismissed. Bandri felt guilty at having to take such a hurried departure from the three sailors, and cursed their luck in the town of Bitung. The two friends walked briskly until they got to the old tree. At that point they paused to look back the way they had come, before heading along a small path which started just beyond.

“Look?!” uttered Agung. “Pigs!”

The two of them hid themselves behind the broad grey trunk of the banyan tree.

Tuhan!” Bandri cursed under his breath. “There’s lots of them!”

A group of about ten men armed with bows and knives had appeared from a street onto the seafront. Some of their kains were white and garnet red, including the one called Yasan. The gang paused while a bald-headed man walked towards the three sailors. He appeared to be asking a question. Bandri felt a very real fear creep up his spine and saw Agung nocking an arrow into his bow. With a pounding heart, he readied his own bow, seamlessly dipping the arrow head in the poison pouch, nocking the arrow and peering back through a gap in the twisting roots.

Bandri’s fingers tingled on the string of his bow feeling the flight tucked between, just above the knotted marker. He had yet to pull back on the string, and his eyes scanned along the arrow. He had prepared the arrow, almost without thinking, and now he raised the bow, aiming through the gap. Every arrow was different no matter how well they were made; this one was straight but the stone arrow head, smeared now with poison, was a little heavier than he would have preferred for game hunting – but it could be better for this occasion.

His mind hummed with aggravation. Why should these men be after them!? They had only tried to help, hadn’t they? He saw Yasan goading men in the gang, who were all now checking their knives and selecting arrows, fixing them in their bows – Yasan didn’t seem interested in taking prisoners. If the gang came for them, they must run or fight! His heart ached for Ayu and he knew they must survive for Likupang! Agung will fight – so they had to fight! And then they can run!

The gang were now debating something, and arms were being waved around. If they started in this direction Bandri decided to try and pick off Yasan first. After a caustic interlude, the gang hustled off in the other direction.

“Some Java have good spirits,” muttered Agung.

Jogging rapidly along the path, past a rubbish tip at the edge of the town, they were able to retrace their route back up the hill. Once safely out of Bitung they rested for a short time under the shade of a rambutan tree.

“I saw that bald man from the works,” said Agung as their breathing returned to normal. “I was aiming for him.”

Bandri recollected his feelings as they hid from the gang.

“We did him no harm,” he said, still unable to understand why the bald man had been part of the gang, but then pouted his lips towards Agung’s machete.

“Greed,” grunted Agung.

There was a quiet interlude when neither talked as they plucked fruit from the tree. They sat down under the tree as they peeled off the hairy skin of the fruit and munched on the soft flesh, ruminating on their experience. Bandri kept thinking – was greed for bronze enough of a reason? He thought back to the way the bald man replied to his enquiry about the missing girl.

“Cunning,” suggested Bandri, raising his eyebrows. “Cunning could be another reason.”

Agung spat out a fruit stone with exaggerated force.

From their position they could look back down on the town and its bustling streets. They were about to leave when Bandri noticed a crowd gathering near the centre of the town.

“Look there – in that open space,” he said, pointing.

At this distance they could not distinguish individual features, but they could see a figure being tied to a wooden scaffold. A shudder of despair ran up Bandri’s spine as he recognised the dark loose sarong that flapped in the light wind.

“Pigs!” grunted Agung in disgust. “An old woman?!”

Once the out-stretched arms of the feeble figure were secured the other people moved back, leaving just one who wore a dark-coloured kain. This man held in his hands something long that glinted in the late-afternoon sunlight. The glinting sliver was raised aloft, and in one fell swoop it flashed down on the end of an out-stretched arm. The dot of a hand fell away in a small red sprinkle. A moment later the dull sound of a cheer reached the two horrified friends. By then, Bandri had keeled over to vomit.

 

In a depressed mood, the friends reached the group of ramshackle houses with the barking dogs. An old man sat beside a litter of puppies playing around a bundle of coconut sennit.

“We’ll get dogs,” said Agung flatly.

In exchange for some heavy lifting work to fix the broken roof of his house, the man gave them a couple of the brown and white yapping creatures.

Arriving back at the small village, they found that the old lady was now accompanied by several neighbours. Nobody had traced the girl. Retrieving their packs, they saw that both packs were now full with ore.

“Please accept our thanks for your time,” said the old lady, placing her frail hand into each of theirs. “This is all we can do for you.”

 

~~~~~

 

Soon it would be dark, and the moon would not rise for a while. The two men were exhausted by the day’s events. They were back in the valley between the mountains, making steady but slow progress as they carried their packs with the dead weight of rocks inside. Attached to each pack was an enclosed little hammock, holding the mewing, wriggling puppies.

Bandri had mulled over their encounters in Bitung and by now had tried to reconcile himself with how it was. Ahead of them lay a long hard journey.

“I really need a break now,” he said finally.

After detaching the little hammock, with Agung’s help he off-loaded the heavy pack on his back. Likewise, Bandri helped his friend as he shrugged the thick straps off his broad shoulders.

“We need to get a meal while there’s still light,” said Bandri. “I’ll see if I can shoot something.”

While Agung prepared a fire, Bandri took his bow and crept into the dense vegetation. Since he was a small boy he had been taught how to do this. With stealth he placed one foot in front of another, choosing with delicate balance exactly how he placed his feet on the crowded forest floor. There was plenty of game in the rainforest, but seeing it and shooting it needed experience. The hunter needed to be part of the forest and to move like the forest. If the branches or leaves moved, he moved as a branch or a leaf, present but invisible, silent. This time he selected a guinea fowl. He primed the bow smoothly and slowly aimed, as part of the forest.

Looking down the length of the arrow, Bandri remembered the gang and how he felt while aiming at Yasan. This arrow had a lighter arrowhead, and very slightly out of shape, so he made a minor adjustment to his aim to compensate, pulling the string to his lips and letting it touch the tip of his nose. The plump guinea fowl sat oblivious on a branch and he imagined it as Yasan, and released.

Agung was not surprised when his friend returned in short measure with their main course. There were plenty of fruit and vegetables in this virgin rainforest, although knowledge was needed to know which was edible and which to avoid. Returning to their campsite with the side dishes, Bandri saw that Agung now had the barbeque underway. As the guinea fowl breasts roasted over the hot embers, the two men whiled away the time feeding and handling the puppies.

“Tongkoko and Klabat,” suggested Bandri. “Or Mel and Suk will find names.”

Agung’s thoughts were elsewhere.

“I hope they find Yuli,” he sighed.

“I hope they find her too,” said Bandri, unable any longer to use the girl’s name. “But we have to look after our own.. It made me understand what Eko was talking about.”

Neither spoke about the poor woman with the fish.

“ They’re vulnerable at Pantai,” said Bandri. “- with two girls?”

“I’ve been thinking that all the time.”

Bandri tried to breathe steadily as he struggled with his conscience – thinking of the safety of the family at Pantai and Agung’s dilemma. What would happen if Agung left Likupang? Whatever he said next could change everyone’s lives.

“If you want – we could ask the family to join us in Likupang?” he suggested.

He watched Agung’s face as he contemplated how the world could work differently to the way it already was.

“Maybe they want to be on their own at Pantai?” said Agung hesitantly. “They’re Java. What do you think they’ll say at home?”

“We would need to ask them – and everyone at home.”

Faintly amused, Bandri watched his friend rock uneasily at the thought.

“What about the pigs in Bahoi?”

A feeling of great apprehension flooded over Bandri and he wondered whether he should have said what he did.

 

After their evening meal they rested until the moon was well-risen.

Following the valley bottom, they made further slow progress, the great weight of their packs necessitating frequent stops. The dense wall of trees on both sides hid the mountainous milky-white octopi of Klabut and Tongkoko.

When darkness fell they set up camp again and slept soundly until dawn.

 

In the first light Bandri climbed a tall tree. They were directly between the peaks of Tongkoko and Klabat – nearly half-way home.

“If we make the same pace today we might be close to Pantai when the light goes,” estimated Bandri.

This had become a feat of endurance as the two friends hauled their loads through the dense rainforest, following the valley floor. Resting at mid-day, they drank, ate and recuperated in the shade. As the light faded in the afternoon, they knew they had broken the back of the journey home. Another evening encampment and then they would push on in the moonlight.

 

Bandri was optimistic.

“The moon is bigger and brighter tonight,” he said. “If we keep following the river it goes in a big loop here. We can cut across through the trees and save us some time?”

“It would be alright in daylight.”

“Look how bright the moon is,” said Bandri yearning to get to get back as soon as possible.

“I don’t know,” said Agung without enthusiasm. “Stay by the river.”

Bandri scratched out a little map in the mud at the side of the river.

“There’s the river,” he said, drawing a U shape. “We could cut across the top.”

“Alright – but we need our leg covers on.”

Leaving the river they stepped into the trees, and found themselves in a flat, poorly lit wood, where the trees were uniformly upright. The views of the mountains on either side were blocked out by the vegetation and neither could they see the position of the moon.

“If we go straight across we will meet the river,” said Bandri, sounding confident. This should be easy, he thought.

The two beat and hacked their way in the chosen direction, skirting around trees and the thick shrubs interspersed between them.

Time passed. The wooded area carried on and on.

“We’ve been here before!” declared Agung.

Tuhan – Kami telah pergi pusingan dalam bulatan!” – “God – We’ve gone round in a circle!” cursed Bandri in confession.

The maze of trees confused them. The poor light made every direction the same. There was no wind, no noise of a river, nothing to guide them. Bandri in particular was frustrated by the lost time, blaming himself for persuading his friend to go along with his ideas.

“We have to get our bearings – I need to climb up a tree.”

All the trees seemed similar – upright with no branches near to the ground. Bandri chose a tree. Putting down the backpack and equipment, he started to climb but hesitated.

“I’ll have to take these off,” he said, removing the leg covers and kasuts.

Agung watched uneasily.

Hugging the smooth trunk, Bandri shinnied up until he could reach some handholds, and then clambered further up. Agung looked up, watching as the moving outline went higher and higher, getting smaller and smaller.

High up in the tree, Bandri had been able to see out through the thinner branches at the top of the canopy. The ghostly-pale moonlight lit up the valley, highlighting the mountainous octopus of the volcano across the other side, with its hilly tentacles winding down towards bottom where the river wound its way through the forest.

“I can see where we went wrong – the river is just over there!”

Agung watched the outline get bigger as it descended. Bandri let himself slip back down the smooth lower trunk.

“Put your covers on,” Agung said firmly and held out the leg covers and kasuts.

In his haste Bandri stepped, with his bare feet, back onto the forest floor ground which was strewn with leaf-litter and fallen branches. He picked up a branch to wedge it against the trunk to indicate the direction, and only then did he accept the gift of the kasuts and bent over to tie them on.

He felt a sharp scratch on his left ankle.

Turning, he saw a dark green snake, a green pit viper – dark green and twisting in the dim light, holding onto his ankle – then releasing itself to slither back into the leaf litter. For a moment he said nothing, trying to understand what had happened. A sallow feeling of shame hit him first. Why hadn’t he listened? It was his fault!

“I’ve been bitten – I’m sorry,” he confessed.

As he stood on his right leg they looked for the bite, but it was difficult to see in the darkness. Agung bent right over and saw tiny spots of blood – immediately putting his mouth over the skin and sucking hard, spitting it out, and sucking again, spitting, sucking, spitting.. and then looked up.

“How do you feel?”

Bandri looked down at the concerned face of his closest friend. Agung was saying “Maybe it didn’t leave any poison,” but now there was pain – a numbing pain and a tormented sinking feeling.

“It did – it’s hurting now.”

As he said this he could feel a taste like lemon grass in his mouth, and his lips tingled. He felt afraid for what was going to happen next, yet he knew that he must try to recover – for Agung, for Ayu, for the others! He needed to know how. Sweaty, confused, unsure, all he could feel now was anger with himself, anger at his failure to think, failure to listen, failure to look after Ayu.

“Ayu love,” he slurred, stumbling as he started to walk, home to Ayu, that’s where he should be, although now he knew not where to go. His chest felt heavy. Fighting for breath, he stopped walking and bent over, then he felt Agung grab hold of him, and then other things happened.

The tentacle of a giant white octopus wrapped around him, squeezing his chest as he struggled for air. Bandri saw Ayu out of reach, held by another waving, coiling tentacle. Mel, Suk and his mother were being swept up too by the tentacles of the monstrous octopus. The octopus dragged him into pounding surf where stormy winds blew. He desperately wanted to see Ayu but he couldn’t see her now, but the octopus was still there pulling him down. In the distance he could hear Agung telling him to hold on. He wanted to shout out but his tongue stuck in his mouth. He mouthed his curses – but no sound came, only the sound of Agung’s voice close by his ear. In febrile convulsions he tried to kick free yet the octopus held on to him, trying to drown him in the cold waters. Fighting the pressure on his chest he clawed for the surface, gasping for air, then sank again towards the bottom of the ocean and death.

 

~~~~~

 

Melati spent most of the time with Ayu and Sukma while her brother and Agung were away. The chatter between the three friends was very often about the two absent men.

“Do you know why father called him Bandri?” said Melati.

The other two looked up from their weaving and shook their heads.

“You know how father was very fond of hunting for honey,” explained Melati, feeling just then the spectre of her father’s murder. She swallowed hard and refused to allow the tears to come. “He said that the name Bandri reminded him of the buzzing sound the bees make.”

Ayu leant over and put an arm around Melati’s shoulder.

“Bbbaannnnddddrrriii!” Ayu mimicked, just like a bee.

Forgetting her bad memory in an instant, Melati burst into a fit of giggles along with Sukma.

“Now I have a new name for my husband,” Ayu said between her own giggles. “I will just buzz when I want him!”

“Buzz now because they’ve been away for so long,” complained Sukma.

The three of them buzzed long and loud as they busily weaved their fabric on the porch.

The large pebble message left by Bandri was kept carefully on a small shelf attached to the house wall. When the buzzing died down, they started talking about the symbols on the pebble.

“Each mark means a sound,” explained Ayu. “So he means ‘se-ma-n-ga-t’.”

“Passion,” breathed Sukma wistfully. “What does it mean?”

Melati felt her face get hot as she looked at Suk’s provocative expression. Sukma was only teasing Ayu, but still it embarrassed Melati.

“It means I love him,” answered Ayu. “It means I will do anything for him.. it means I’m missing him now…”

Her answer tailed off with the shedding of copious tears. Melati and Sukma dropped their weaving and hugged her.

“They’ll be back soon,” said Melati trying to reassure her. “The Sun Spirit will look after him.”

“Agu will look after him,” said Sukma with confidence, as if he was more powerful than the Sun Spirit. “He’ll never let anything bad happen.”

Melati wondered if their brothers cared for each other like the way she cared about Suk, and the way she beleived Suk cared for her.

“They will look after each other,” Melati said with hope in heart.

“That’s true,” said Ayu, beginning to recover her poise. “Agu knows the right thing – he thinks about things even if he doesn’t say it.”

“He talks when he needs to,” said Sukma. “He’ll look after Dri.”

“Really!?” said Melati. “I mean – does he talk?”

“Oh yes,” Sukma answered brightly. “But maybe not when you’re around Mel,”

“He’s just shy Mel,” murmured Ayu, putting a hand on her knee. “He likes you really.”

“You scare him!” Sukma quipped.

Melati pulled a scary face at Suk, poking out her tongue, while Suk pulled a face back. Ayu chuckled. Even though Agung’s sisters were her closest friends, she still couldn’t tell them what her mother had said to her, and anyway she didn’t think she should break her mother’s confidence. Yet finally her desire to understand Agung broke through the pretence.

“But really – why doesn’t he speak much – there must be a reason?”

Ayu looked at her, no longer evading the question.

“Alright,” she said, breathing in deeply. “We can try to understand him better if I tell you both something that’s probably best to keep to ourselves.”

Sukma looked at her sister with questioning eyes.

“ You were just a baby Suk – but there is something I’ve tried to forget,” Ayu began quietly, almost apologetically. “And now our parents never talk of it – but you are older -”

“What is it?” demanded Sukma now.

“I’m sorry Suk.. When Agung was a boy we had an older brother, his name was Bria..” Sukma made a mewing sound, staring at her sister who added painfully “Bria was about Untung’s age when it happened – he was a year older than Agu.. They were playing together when Bria was bitten by a snake.. and Bria died.”

As if reliving the trauma, Ayu cradled the pebble with Bandri’s inscription while Sukma hugged her sister tightly.

“I’m sorry sister,” Ayu whimpered, dropping the pebble on her lap to return the hug. “There’s nothing we can do.”

In aching empathy, Melati reached out to put her arms around her friends, laying her head against theirs, not knowing what to think or what to say.

“You see, I think this has something to do with why he doesn’t say much,” Ayu managed to explain after the pain subsided. “It’s as if he still blames himself for not saving his brother – as if somehow he has turned in on himself.”

“I’m sorry,” Melati mumbled, struggling to express churning emotions. “I never knew.”

Ayu carefully mopped up teardrops that had fallen onto the pebble.

“Do you know he helped Dri make up a lot more marks?” she said. “They wrote Kampong Likupang on his machete.”

“Our big brother is great, isn’t he?” sniffed Sukma, still hugging Ayu. “We love him – don’t we?”

Ayu and Sukma went on to relate funny stories about Agung and Melati’s feelings completed their transmutation. Now she was missing Agung almost as much as she was missing her brother. She began to believe that her feelings for Suk’s big brother must really be those of love, and that finally she understood the wisdom of her mother’s words.

 

~~~~~

 

The rising sun beamed between the trees on the eastern ridge of the valley. The light rays shone onto Bandri’s eyelids and he stirred into consciousness. He felt a wet tongue licking his face. Blinking, he smiled weakly at the puppy scrabbling over his chest.

His legs were lying in water. He raised his head and saw around him a low wall of rocks. With an effort he pushed himself up into a sitting position, and peered over the top. Between some trees near to the river, he could see smoke wafting up. His thoughts started to come together – he recalled what had happened last night and why they were in the forest.

Agung appeared with a make-shift leafy container, dripping with forest honey. As the big man trundled and splashed across the river, he grinned at Bandri, who attempted unsuccessfully to grin back.

“How’s your leg?”

“I.. I don’t know,” he mumbled, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. He coughed and looked down at the enlarged leg and discoloured foot. “It’s swollen.” The numbing ache seemed to start right then.

Bandri looked up into the face of the man standing over him. The depth of feeling was too intense and they broke eye contact. His friend bent over to dip a coconut shell into the river water. Bandri swallowed several mouthfulls from the shell placed to his lips. Sensation tingled back into his tongue.

“Thank you,” he mumbled more lucidly.

He knew that he owed his life to Agung, but knew not what to say.

“I’ll try to stand,” he said instead.

“Rest,” ordered his guardian, grinning at him. “You need a good meal.”

Agung picked up the small bow and the quiver of small arrows, and then strode into the forest, to return almost immediately. He dropped the small bow and arrows beside Bandri, grinned again and then picked up the big bow. Flinging the quiver with its long arrows over his shoulder, he disappeared again into the forest.

Scooping up the sticky honeycomb and brood with his fingers, Bandri shoved it messily into his mouth. The smooth palatable sweetness countered the dry sourness still lingering from the night before. The puppies lapped up the honey that dropped onto his chest and the pebbles underneath.

As he waited, Bandri tried to wiggle his toes. They hurt, but they wiggled. He rubbed some more honey over the blister that had developed on his ankle. Massaging his hot swollen left leg, he felt something in the pocket of his kathok. Remembering the shiny little rock, he took it out to have another look.

It was heavy in the palm of his hand, but small; about the length and thickness of his little finger. When he washed the nugget in the river the water ran right off. It seemed dry but it also seemed slippery. He knew bronze was a shiny copper-yellow colour when it was polished, but bronze turned browner when it was left. This metal was different. It was all the same colour – a polished golden-yellow.

He dipped the golden nugget in the honey, and held it up to the light. The honey clung to the nugget – it looked as if it was melting. The colours were the same, making a great golden drop of honey. He smiled, thinking that this will be a suitable gift for Ayu.

Bandri sucked the honeyed-gold clean, raising his eyebrows in pleasure.

 

The spit-roasted cucus marsupial served as a meal for the men and the puppies. Agung supplemented the main course with some cooked medicinal roots, a couple of ricefish caught in the river, clusters of snake fruit, a powerfully-pungent durian and a barbequed tarantula.

Bandri looked at the reddish-brown snake fruit with its scaly skin and shuddered. Agung chuckled and pinched the top of the fruit, peeling back the scaly skin to pull out the lobes inside.

“They’re good for snake bite,” his friend informed him. “I searched a long time.”

Feeling obliged, Bandri gnawed at the acidic pulp around the seeds, overcoming the astringent taste. He fared better with the durian and the tarantula, first making sure that all the hairs were burnt off the giant spider.

With a good meal inside him, Bandri announced optimistically:

“The swelling has stopped.”

He hobbled to his feet to try and lift the impossibly heavy backpack.

“Take the ore out,” said Agung, with a sad shake of his head.

“Alright,” Bandri answered, giving up the attempt. “But I’ll keep the best rock.”

“We can hide the ore,” Agung told him. “I’ll pick it up later.”

They looked around. There was a loose pile of small rocks near the river. Agung pulled the rocks to one side, leaving a deep depression in the ground. They packed the precious ore in Bandri’s pack into the hole, and then thinly covered it with river stones. Scanning the forest and mountains around them, they made a mental note of any landmarks so that they could find the place again when either of them came back for the ore.

“We need to mark the place well,” said Bandri, remembering the maze in the woods. “It could be difficult to find again.”

Close by a large granite boulder had a distinctive shape. Agung heaved and rolled it over on top of their buried horde.

“It looks like a head,” Bandri observed. “Someone has chipped at it to make it a head.”

“It feels old,” said Agung, thoughtfully running his fingers over the sculpture’s eye sockets.

“Father said the head-hunters made them.”

Bandri inspected the head, and looked around to see if there were any other signs of humanity. “No-one’s here now.”

“A spirit of the mountain?” muttered Agung.

The lonely stone statue appeared to stare back at them – a mystic survivor from the past.

“What happened to them?” mumbled Bandri, thinking now about the fragility of life.

He wondered if the poor woman had died after that gastly amputation. A few more moments of conversation with the sailors in Bitung and probably both of them would have been dead. He would have died from the snake bite – but Agung saved him.

“After the snake bite, what did you do?” he asked.

“I splashed water over you,” Agung said, turning away and pushing his hair back with both hands. “When you stopped breathing – I did it for you.”

Bandri closed his eyes for a few moments and tried to make more sense of his recollection. Opening his eyes to reveal the bright colours of the world around him, he took a deep breath and cleared his throat.

“Agu,” Bandri said, using Ayu’s soft name for her brother.

Agung looked at him.

“You saved my life – thank you.”

“Bri,” came the answer. “Not usually.”

Agung grinned and looked away again.

Bandri chuckled. He felt privileged to owe his life to this great shy man. He watched as Agung, standing with feet apart, nocked a large arrow into his big bow and drew it back at shoulder-height, aiming it somewhere into the trees. The powerful muscles in his upper body were taut, and those in his abdomen clearly defined as he turned side on. The great narra wood bow flexed mightily as he pulled the tendon bowstring back with three fingers until it touched his lips. His right hand under his chin, he focused on a target out along the shaft of the arrow.

“What will happen if I kill a monkey?”

Bandri followed the line of the arrow to see a crested macaque sitting on a far away branch. It was a small target at such a distance and one that most men would not be able to hit, let alone reach. The hairy black monkey had a long hairless nose and as it raided the eggs from a bird’s nest it would appear to have a smug grin on its face. The Malay considered that monkey spirits were contentious; some tribes thought monkeys might be regarded as ancestor spirits, and some tribes thought they might be partner spirits to living people, although Bandri was not inclined to believe either idea.

“If it’s an animal spirit it will affect no-one?” answered Bandri, not especially perturbed by the subject.

“Or someone might die?” Agung said, still holding the drawn bow as if he was a statue. He closed one eye and slightly adjusted the angle to allow for distance.

“If it’s an ancestor it may make no difference to what happens,” mused Bandri.

“If I shoot it – whatever happens can’t be changed.”

“So time is like an arrow,” suggested Bandri, drifting philosophically along with the idea. “If you release the arrow it goes into the future, and we will discover what happens.”

“ What if it’s the partner spirit for -”, Agung growled the last word and let loose the arrow. “- Yasan?!”

With a sharp thrum from the bow the arrow flashed silently away in a barely perceptible low arc. In the distance the spirit tumbled out of the tree with limbs splayed loosely, dead before it hit the ground.

 

~~~~~

 

Lyana watched her father struggle to rise from the bamboo couch in the kitchen. She hesitated to help him since he was such a proud man, but she could see the pain he was in.

“Father, are you alright?”

“Yes cherry,” he answered, but then his left foot seemed to fold under him.

“Father!?” she cried as he fell heavily with a clattering thump against the wooden shelving.

Listeri and Lela rushed out of the house.

“Raj!” Lyana shouted, her voice taut with emotion. “Help us!”

The boy came running up from the beach to see his mother and sisters crowding around his father on the ground.

 

~~~~~

 

Bandri felt he had rested long enough.

“We must get back now,” he said, feeling a surge of concern for Ayu and his family.

Ignoring the pain, Bandri stood and picked up his lighter backpack with its yapping cargo. He prayed that time and the spirits had looked after Likupang.

“We go to Pantai first,” said Agung.

 

[] [] *6* The Visit

Using a branch as a crutch Bandri had endured the pain, and kept moving. At last they passed by the clear pond at Pantai, and in the fading light they could make out the dark outlines of the two houses. The place looked deserted.

“Anybody there?!” called Agung.

After some moments, a door opened revealing a dim light. Bandri could see the figure of Raharjo appear, followed by Lyana and then Lela.

Raharjo ran towards the two men.

“What’s happened?” Raharjo asked, trying to help support Bandri.

“He has a snake bite,” said Agung. “Can he rest here?”

“Of course – come in, come into the porch,” urged Lyana.

Lela turned without speaking and ran back into the house.

Lyana led Bandri into the porch as Raharjo placed the seats in a line so he could lie down. She brought a lit candle into the porch, and some coconut packing to prop under the leg. Lela came out and talked to her sister quietly, and then went back inside again. Bandri sensed that there was something wrong, and not just with his leg.

“How are you all?” he asked, sitting up.

“Father is very sick,” said Raharjo. “He can’t move.”

“He fell down,” Lyana explained. “He’s been getting worse for days – he can talk, but he’s very weak.. Our mother is with him.” She put her hand on Agung’s arm, her eyes glancing tearfully between the two men.

“We pray that he will recover,” said Bandri trying not to look too closely at Agung who appeared very disturbed and looked like he was going to say something, but then remained silent.

“He’s been waiting for your return,” said Lyana. “He says he hopes to speak with you both.”

Listeri came out of the house, her face drawn and tired.

“You have heard I think – my husband would like to speak with you.”

The two men were shown into the house. Two flames in half coconut shells lit the room where Eko lay on a low couch. He propped himself up on an elbow, but evidently could not move further. Lela supported his shoulders with a pillow so that he could hold out his hand in greeting as they knelt down beside his bed. Bandri took a little time to find a comfortable position.

“Lela tells me that you have a snake bite?” Eko’s voice was clear and concerned.

“It was a long walk – it’s getting much better now,” Bandri replied. “How are you sir?”

Eko waved his hand dismissively.

“I can’t walk today, but I am alright.. Tell me, how was Bitung?”

In the half-light Bandri glanced at Agung’s expression. Deciding not to talk about the missing girl or the old woman he replied:

“ We found the ore we needed – the snake bite happened when we were carrying it back.. I would have died if it was not for Agung.” Realising that he had just made his friend feel awkward, he said “Bitung is getting a big town – there are so many people, we tried -” and he thought about the girl and the woman. Powerful emotions came upon Bandri at that moment and he turned his head away as tears reached his eyes.

Eko looked towards Lyana, Lela and Raharjo who were all crowded into the room and remonstrated with them:

“Why are you waiting around?! – Can’t you see they are hungry and thirsty?”

With the three of them out of the room and the door closed, Eko turned towards his guests again.

“I’m sorry, we have not given you a very good welcome.”

Bandri’s mind was still spinning with the apparent ugly randomness of the world. He was recovering his composure but could not yet look Eko in the eyes.

“Listeri and I have been talking since we met you,” said Eko quietly. Bandri could sense that Eko and Listeri were studying him intently. “I think you know why I am afraid for my family?”

He nodded an unspoken understanding.

“Do you want to know why we came to Pantai?” Eko asked.

Bandri finally looked at Eko and saw a painful empathy in his expression. He glanced at Agung who nodded almost imperceptively.

“We had another daughter, older than Lyana – Raharjo was just a baby then – he doesn’t know about her..We never knew really what happened to her – but she was taken away by some tribesmen..” Eko’s voice cracked. “She was found later – we think she killed herself.”

The room was stuffy and pregnant with emotion.

“We moved away from Bitung,” he said after a pause. “You understand – we were afraid for our other daughters.”

Listeri spoke, her voice strained but controlled:

“We are sorry to tell you this – there is nothing anyone can do about what has happened – but we wanted you both to know – in confidence.” The stress on the last two words told them that they should not share this circumstance with anyone else.

Bandri knew then that he and Agung should make the offer.

“We are so sorry,” said Agung, speaking for the first time. “Tell us if there is something we can do.”

Agung’s tone told Bandri what he needed to know, yet he hesitated to respond.

“I cannot protect my family anymore..” Eko’s voice faltered and his wife handed him a drink. “I think you like my daughters,” he said looking at Agung. “And we like you – both of you – myself and my wife, and my daughters and my son.”

The pause seemed eternal as Bandri fretted still about the impact on Likupang.

“Sir, if both of you wish it,” said Bandri formally, praying that it was the right thing to do. “We would like your family to join us in Likupang.”

Agung nodded his upper body slowly in reverent affirmation.

“We would like that – we thank you both.” Eko reached out and held Bandri’s hand, holding it tightly. “But I fear there is a problem – your tribe is Malay and we are Javanese.”

“Yes sir,” said Agung ernestly. “But we like your family.”

Eko smiled with understanding, and reached out to grasp Agungs hand.

“But first you must ask your family in Likupang,” Eko told them. “Then we can decide.”

The conversation continued for some time. It was arranged that Bandri would stay at Pantai to recover while Agung went to Likupang to explain the situation. He would then come back to Pantai with a senior from Likupang, so that the family would know if they were welcome.

 

The door between the kitchen and the room Eko lay in was jammed wide open, so that he was included in the conversation as the family ate a meal late in the evening. Propped up in bed, Eko had fully regained his austere persona, tinged with sardonic humour.

“My wife has caught a krait snake for you,” Eko informed Bandri. “Its poison is like a vipers.”

“It will do you good to eat snake after a bite,” she explained. “And I’ve added strong spices to fight the poison in your body.”

Bandri hestitated as he looked at the headless body in the pot. They never ate snake in Likupang, not even for snake bite.

“Oh.. thank you,” he responded, even though his stomach churned at the thought of eating it. “You shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble looking for the snake.”

“It’s no trouble,” said Listeri without a hint of sarcasm.

A meal of barbequed prawns and steamed tuna was served. Bandri battled politely with the large serving of spiced snake meat, resorting to pulling the slippery flesh off the bones with his teeth, while Agung grinned at his discomfort.

Agung was beaming with pleasure. The girls had already become enamoured with the two puppies, and now he watched as they fed titbits to the excited little creatures scampering round their feet.

“If you like them, they’re yours,” he declared spontaneously, and got delighted smiling kisses on the cheek in return, turning his colour into a slightly warmer shade.

“More gifts?!” Eko exclaimed in a belligerent tone, and pointed to the dolphin brooch that Lyana was now wearing. “Agung – tell me – to how many women have you given gifts like this?”

Bandri nearly choked on his snake meat as Agung, awkward again, tried his best to explain. Eko interrupted him.

“It’s alright,” he said laconically, waving a hand as if he wasn’t interested. With the other hand he pushed a whole honeyed-prawn into his mouth and added “We forgive you.”

 

~~~~~

 

At first light Agung set off back to Likupang in a state of turmoil. The ground seemed to ring at every step he took.

He thought he had understood his life until the day he washed his feet in the pond. Until then the only women he talked to were his mother and his two sisters – they had been the women in his life. Bandy’s young sister made him feel so awkward; she was lovely but also so young. Everyone would think it bad if he talked to her; they would guess what his interest was. Anyway, he felt sure that Mel would avoid him altogether if she wasn’t with Suk all the time.

But everything had changed since he met Lyana and Lela. The way they looked at him made him feel like his heart was breaking out of his chest. And when he wasn’t with them, the hurt felt like an itch he couldn’t scratch.

Last night, watching the sisters feed and cuddle the puppies made him want to be like a puppy. And when the girls kissed him on the cheek, the seismic effect at one and the same time both froze and exhilarated his body. And now there was this abiding emotion that pulled him in one direction only – towards the girls.

Bandri and he had talked last night about what would be best to say to the family. On the way home, he pondered how he could explain everything when he arrived at Likupang. With Bandy things somehow made sense, but now he felt confused again.

Agung thought he knew how everyone in the village expected him to behave. How could he tell them about Pantai? There was going to be a lot of fuss when he turned up on his own. He didn’t know how he could handle it – but maybe Ayu could? Yes, he felt sure his sister would know what to say.

 

~~~~~

 

The family at Pantai paid great attention to Bandri’s medical care. In the morning Listeri insisted that he should frequently exercise his leg, walking him around the house.

“I’m making a stew with Pandan leaves,” she informed him. “It will stop the fever and swelling.”

“It’s a strong flavour – but good for you,” added Eko from his bed.

Lyana then instructed him to sit down and rest his leg.

“This is a lotion of sour honey and calamansi,” she explained, as she started to massage the swelling around his ankle and calf muscle, trying to dissipate the poison and encourage fresh blood to revitalise the swollen tissues.

“The sour honey tastes good too,” Bandri said, thinking of the Pandan stew he must eat. “We use it for fevers and wounds.”

“My wife is cooking another snake for you,” Eko said. “Best to eat snakes after a bite,” he added as if it was obvious.

Lyana smiled with understanding at Bandri.

“I’ll get plenty of the honey for you to eat as well.”

In the old bamboo fences around the houses resided numerous small colonies of the stingless bees. Lyana proceeded to collect sour honey by cracking open the nodes of bamboo and scooping out the honey nodules. As she did this, clouds of protesting little black bees buzzed and crawled over her skin. To try and keep them away from her face she had tied a sheet of fabric over her head, porous enough to see and breathe through. Nevertheless, some of the tiny insects made it inside, making themselves an itchy nuisance.

Bandri got up to try and help her.

“You must rest your leg,” she told him. “I’ll do this – Sis will do the massage.”

Bandy smiled in admiration as she persisted, giving out little squeals periodically as some made it into her ears or up her nose. She burst into a fit of coughing when she accidentally breathed one in, but carried on with hardly a pause.

“My daughter was always determined,” Eko remarked, just loud enough for him to hear. “Strong-willed she is.”

As Bandri sat on a chair in the shade of the porch, Lela knelt down shyly on the ground at his feet, tucking the long sarong under her knees.

“Please sir, place your foot on the cushion,” Lela requested dutifully, apparently unable at this time to use his name.

Bandri watched the girl as she laid her hands on his swollen leg and started rubbing in the lotion with a delicate pressure. Her dexterous movements caused the sarong to gently loosen and then pull a little tighter around her supple figure while her long thick black hair fell forward, mostly hiding her face. Occasionally she looked up, her large dark eyes under those long eyelashes meeting his fleetingly, as if seeking reassurance that she was not hurting him. He found himself looking forward to the next time she raised her head. Discerning the sublime innocence of a freshly-flowered young woman, he adjusted his posture to try and disguise the bulge that had grown in his kathok. He smiled pleasantly down at her and breathed steadily, trying to maintain an appropriate decorum.

Meanwhile, Eko lay on his bed sleeping, Raharjo had gone fishing and Listeri collected produce from the garden at the back of the house.

 

~~~~~

 

Ayu, Melati and Sukma were weaving fabric on the porch. Being busy seemed the best way to cope as they waited for Bandri and Agung’s return.

They heard the commotion, and then Harta ran towards them shouting:

“Agung’s back! Agung’s back!”

The sisters looked at each other nervously.

Di mana Dri?!” – “Where’s Dri?!” Sukma asked.

Ayu was feeling the same question.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled.

They ran towards the edge of the village, as people reached the oncoming figure of Agung, carrying his backpack. Her brother had a serious expression on his face. People looked at her as she ran with her heart hurting. Ayu could only hear the question on everyone’s lips:

Di mana Bandri?!” – “Where’s Bandri?!”

Di mana Bandy?!” – “Where’s Bandy?!”

Agung was looking for her – ignoring the others and holding his great arms out for her. She reached him and he said:

“He’s alright – Bandy is fine – he’s staying with friends.. He’s alright.”

In tears of relief she hugged her dear great brother.

Everyone wanted to know what had happened.

“Bandy is fine,” said Agung. “He hurt his leg – he’s staying with friends.”

“Which friends?!”

“First I will tell Ayu all this.”

“What’s wrong with his leg!?”.. “When is he coming back?”

“He’s alright.”

“Which friends?”.. “What’s wrong with his leg?”

“I will tell all this to Ayu first.”

After the questioning had calmed down, Agung was finally allowed to speak to her alone. Meanwhile, the rest of Bandri’s family would have to wait their turn for the all important details of where Bandri was, and what had happened to him.

Ayu looked at her brother who had plonked himself down on their couch. She sensed that he wanted to tell her many things, but just needed somewhere to start.

“Agu – tell me about Dri’s leg?”

“We were coming back from Bitung – carrying the ore, when it happened – but he’s going to be alright.”

“What happened Agu?”

“He got a snake bite.”

Ayu felt her heart stop.

“Where?!”

“On the ankle – but it’s alright – we bathed it in a river – the swelling is going down now. It was difficult for him to walk all the way back – he’s staying with friends at Pantai.”

She breathed again.

“Pantai? – is that a fishing village?”

Agung nodded.

“Do you know them – at Pantai?”

Ayu detected from her brother’s demeanour that there was much more to find out. She had recovered her composure and now her eyes were glinting.

“Dri told me about the bronze bird..?”

She sat close to him, and then leant in to tweak his midriff.

Aah Tuhan!.. Ayu..” – “Aah God!.. Ayu..”

Only she knew how to do that him – the light touch of her fingers instantly moved the large muscled torso.

“Tell me then?” she said, threatening him with her fingers.

Sehat, sehat.. terdapat dua – dua wanita..”- “Alright, alright.. there are two – two women..” he confessed.

Duaaa..!?” and she tweaked him a second time.

“Tell me – tell me everything Agu!”

 

Everyone else waited in the shade of their porches. In Ayu’s porch sat Endah, while Praba paced up and down the length of the porch, muttering in bad humour about having to wait so long to find out what was going on.

Eventually, Ayu opened the door and invited them in.

“Dri is quite alright – there is no need to worry,” she said in good humour.

Endah slowly got up off her seat and moved through the door, followed by Praba who was trying to suppress his anger.

“Why did we have to wait to find out?!” he retorted. “You have shunned our mother!”

“We’re very sorry you were waiting – it was a long time – but there is some good news.”

Ayu showed Endah to a seat on the couch next to her brother. Since her husband’s death Endah had become a pale shadow of her former self. Her children had all been trying to coax her out of a deep depression.

“Endah, are you alright?” asked Ayu gently, kneeling down and placing her hand gently on Endah’s.

Endah nodded and then she gazed up at Agung, and smiled.

Ayu glanced up at Praba.

He was soothed a little, but still annoyed. Praba found it difficult to remain annoyed in Ayu’s presence. Indeed, he found her sheer fragrant feminity disarming to the extent that he envied his younger brother the good fortune to have Ayu as a wife. However, in their small tribe he knew it was necessary to disguise the attraction he felt towards her.

“There is a good family who would like to join us,” Ayu explained.

Endah turned her head and they could see that she wanted to say something.

“Do we know the family?” she said quietly.

“Perhaps you know them Endah,” Ayu replied softly. “They are from Pantai?”

Endah raised her hand slowly to point in the general direction of the beach.

“Is the family by the sea?”

“Yes – a family of five – a fishing family.”

“Are they from Java?”

“Agu tells me they are a good family.”

Praba interrupted the conversation, since this was a keen point and he detected Ayu’s hesitation.

“Are they from Java?”

“Agu tells me they were from Bitung – there is the mother and father, two daughters and a son.”

“Are they Java?” he asked firmly.

“They are taking good care of Bandri,” Ayu said, smiling at Endah as if she hadn’t heard Praba’s question.

“Where did Bandri go?” said Endah, evidently confused.

Praba winced at the frailty of his mother.

“He went with Agung on a walk,” Ayu told Endah while gently holding her hand. “He’s coming back soon.”

Praba remained quiet, trying to come to terms with the way Ayu and Mel now responded to his mother. He himself refused to talk like that to her.

“That’s good – are you going on a walk?” asked Endah.

“I don’t think so – but Bandri will be here with you soon.”

Endah seemed happy with this explanation, and then she put her trembling hand into Agung’s large hand and resumed smiling at him. Agung accepted Endah’s attention and sat placidly with her. Ayu stood up and spoke quietly with Praba, away from Endah’s hearing.

“Dri is recovering from a snake bite at Pantai. Agu couldn’t explain it to everyone straight away – he wanted to ask if you would like to visit the family because they have asked to join Likupang?”

Praba looked at her, stunned for a moment or two by the conciseness of the explanation, before nodding in understanding.

“Maybe you can call a meeting,” she suggested. “So we can see who else would like to visit?”

 

When Melati heard that Agung had come back on his own she felt her heart almost leap out of her breast with anxiety about Bandri. But then thankfully she learned that her brother was just injured and he was recovering. And then she learned about a family of five at Pantai that might join the village.

During the afternoon, Melati studied Agung from a discrete distance. She watched and listened as he talked to the others. Sometimes he looked at her, and she quickly averted her eyes, and then she watched him again. Now she was looking at him in a new light and seeing a different man.

With increasing confidence, she sat closer to him in the beach shelter as everyone gathered for the village meeting. He turned towards her and smiled.

“Suk tells me you have been weaving,” he said quietly.

At first she couldn’t reply, such was the surprise. Overcome with nervous anxiety, she avoided looking him straight in the face. Her heart pounded and she felt her face grow hot.

“Yes,” she answered after a pause. “Yes, we’ve been weaving and..” She hesitated, not able to express whatever she was feeling. Instead she asked “Is Dri alright?”

“He’s getting better.”

“That’s good,” she said, feeling inadequate. “I love him,” she added, feeling the need to try and express her emotions. Tears came to her eyes and she turned away in embarrassment.

“I understand,” he said thoughtfully from behind her.

Seeing her distress, Ayu came and sat down beside her, with a hug. She knew tears were rolling down her cheeks and she held on to Ayu. How could she have been so wrong? She had discovered the sensitive thoughtful man inside the hard brutal man, the gentle man inside the strong man. Agung evoked feelings in her that defied clarity, feelings that made her want him, feelings that made her want to give herself to him.

“Dri is hurt, isn’t he?” Melati flustered to Ayu, even though she had already been reassured that her brother was going to be alright.

“We’re going to see them tomorrow,” Ayu told her. “He’ll be back soon.”

When she finally turned around, Agung had got up and was talking with Andhika instead. Melati smiled inwardly at her own foolishness. Today she might have discouraged Agung from talking to her, but at least, she thought, there was plenty of time for them to get to know each other better.

 

~~~~~

 

In the afternoon the two invalid men lay in the shade of the porch, conversing about the lethally poisonous krait snakes which had a habit of entering homes – particularly at night.

“Kraits only bite if they are disturbed,” said Eko.

“We worry about the children,” Bandri explained. “We made the wall smooth on the outside so the snakes have trouble climbing into the village.”

“That’s one reason we build our houses on stilts,” Eko explained. “The snakes don’t like climbing upside down at the top of the legs.. And the house stays dry and cool.”

Bandri glanced at the knee-high gap under the house.

“The snakes can hide under the house, can’t they?”

“Oh yes – of course, and scorpions,” chuckled Eko. “It’s best not to crawl underneath – unless you check first.”

Eko reached under the couch on which he lay and retrieved a container, calling to Raharjo: “Fetch two mugs,” and then turned to look again at his guest.

“Young man, I hope you like the cubeb berry!” he exclaimed with a grin. “Good for snake bite.”

Over the spicy intoxicant the two men shared personal experiences and ideas about herbal remedies such as the betal leaf and areca nut.

“Some men, and even the boys, abuse the agara tree,” said Eko. “They chew the leaves to get dreams and fall asleep. It makes them lazy and violent.”

“Do they cook the leaves?” asked Bandri. “In Bitung I saw some agara leaves in a pot.”

“I think so,” Eko sighed and topped up Bandri’s mug with cubeb berry juice.

“Young man, I want to ask about the mark your tribe has?”

Bandri explained the significance of each part of the ornate tattoo over his left shoulder blade.

“So your tribe believe in the Sun Spirit too,” Eko murmured in revelation.

“Yes sir.”

“Young man,” said Eko, looking at him intently. “In the short-time we have known each other I can see that you are a man to be trusted, and someone to whom I already owe a debt of gratitude.”

Bandri said nothing, sensing that something more was to come.

“Do you know our Javanese mantra?”

“No, sir,” Bandri said simply, although he was curious about what such a thing would be.

“It’s sacred to the Javanese,” Eko explained. “It comes from long ago, from our time in another land – very sacred – only told to trusted family and friends – only Javanese trusted friends.”

Bandri curiosity deepened. He looked the older man in the face, but remained silent.

“Young man, if your tribe accept my family then you should understand more about the Javanese.”

For a prolonged moment Eko studied the young man’s face, before lowering his voice:

“You are Malay, but I want to tell it to you. If I do, you must promise never to tell it to another Malay.. Do you agree?”

“Yes sir – I understand the trust you are giving.”

“There is something else you have to understand first,” said Eko, waiting until Bandri nodded. “The mantra can only be spoken by a man.”

“I understand.”

Bandri listened attentively as Eko recited the mantra:

Cahya Ibu mudhun menyang bumi, kang ing wektu lan wiwit lumaku ing kabeh pituduh lan nang endi wae dheweke malmpah tetanduran tansaya. Cahya Ibu menyang guwa banget jero, nyebar cahya iku watara dheweke. Cahya padhang sing radiated saka dheweke wungu roh lan sawise dheweke kiwa serangga kabeh jinis miber saking guwa. Cahya Ibu lenggah lan mirsani ngarsane kamulyane saka serangga dheweke karo dheweke kembang. Banjur dheweke digawe iwak lan ula, kadal lan kodok. Sabanjure dheweke wungu roh saka manuk lan kéwan lan padha nyerbu kawentar srengenge ing kamulyane werna. Cahya Ibu pamungkas dheweke ambegan urip menyang lanang lan wadon, lan dheweke digawe tanduran wong kang wiji menyang wong wadon. Dheweke digawe wong dadi kuwat lan wadon kanggo dadi banget. Cahya Ibu dheweke disebut kabeh jalmo dheweke kanggo dheweke lan diweling mangkene kanggo seneng kasugihan saka bumi lan manggon karo siji liyane. Banjur dheweke wungu menyang langit lan dadi srengenge Cahya, kanggo mengku bumi. Sapa gelut Cahya Ibu, ing wong bakal diparingi ganjaran jembar. Ora ana Tuhan bener nanging Cahya Ibu lan dheweke bakal matak teror menyang ati saka non-pracaya sing bakal rek swarga langgeng.” –

“Our Sun Mother glided down to Earth, which was bare at the time and began to walk in all directions and everywhere she walked plants grew. Then our Sun Mother ventured into a very deep cave, spreading her light around her. The bright light that radiated from her awoke the spirits and after she left insects of all kinds flew out of the caves. Our Sun Mother sat down and watched the glorious sight of her insects mingling with her flowers. Then she created fish and snakes, lizards and frogs. Next she awoke the spirits of the birds and animals and they burst into the sunshine in a glorious array of colours. Our Sun Mother breathed life into men and women, and she made men plant their seed into women. She made the man to be strong and the woman to be weak. The Sun Mother called all her creatures to her and instructed them to enjoy the wealth of the earth and to live with one another. Then she rose into the sky and became the sun, to rule over the Earth. Whosoever fights for the Sun Mother, on him shall be bestowed a vast reward. There is no true God but the Sun Mother and she will cast terror into the hearts of non-believers who will be denied eternal paradise.”

Bandri noticed that Eko had touched his chest over his heart each time he spoke the words ‘Sun Mother’. From the reverent manner in which Eko spoke, it was evident that the mantra had a profound spiritual significance. Whatever he felt about the meaning of the phrases in the mantra, Bandri appreciated the thought behind Eko’s deed.

“Sir, thank you for your trust in me.”

“Young man, you need to know the mind of the Javanese – for the sake of your family, and for all of us.. I will help you to commit the mantra to memory.”

“I will do that.. Can I ask – What is the paradise?”

“Aahh – that is a good question.. A life with every pleasure.” Eko leaned forward, saying in a sardonic manner. “Many virgins are promised.”

“It depends then on what is desired?”

“You are wise for your age – what do the Malay believe happens in the afterlife?”

“The dead are committed to the Sun Spirit, as my father was.”

Bandri agonised again over whether his father had been able to speak to his Sun Spirit before he died. For a moment he recalled the octopus after the snake bite, and how he had then felt nothing until he woke up with a wet tongue on his face.

“We do not know if there is an afterlife.”

“Faith makes you stronger,” insisted Eko. “There is much more to this world than we can see.”

“Have you told your family the mantra?” Bandri asked.

“My wife knows it but will not speak it, and my son is not yet a man.”

Bandri raised his eyebrows, as if in a question.

“I do not want to tell it to my daughters,” added Eko.

“Can I ask why?”

“It would not be good for them – if they spoke it in front of a man they would be punished.”

Bandri’s expression reflected his concern at this statement.

“Lyana is strong-willed.. and Lela is – I don’t know how to say it – but I think you know what I mean. I don’t want to scare her.”

Eko breathed in deeply. He reached down for the cubeb berry juice and topped up both their mugs.

“Men think they can control women – make them do what they want,” Eko continued.

“They have minds of their own,” said Bandri.

“Java men own women,” Eko told him bluntly. “That is what I mean – a woman or a girl is owned by a man. She has to have a man to protect her – or trusted men. If a man cannot protect her – then another man can take her.”

Bandri sensed that the brutal frankness of Eko’s explanation seemed almost cathartic, as if he was relieved at being able to tell it the way he saw it.

“How are young girls protected?” Bandri asked, although he feared the answer.

“If a father and his family cannot protect them,” Eko stated. “They may be taken.”

“May be taken?”

“It depends on trust and respect – it depends on the decision of the seniors,” said Eko. “Whoever is the most powerful will decide what happens – and if others betray that decision they will be punished.”

“And in a tribe the most powerful are the seniors?” said Bandri, thinking now about Bahoi. “A senior can become old and weak.”

Eko gave a half-hearted shrug, and drank some more.

“Men want strong sons – if a woman doesn’t give him sons then she is in disgrace. Men will still look for other woman to give him more children – that way they become more powerful. The younger the woman, the more attractive she is,” said Eko with stark precision. “In a tribe, if a man is not trusted by the most powerful then he cannot have a female.”

The use of the word ‘female’ rang a chilling note in Bandri’s mind, harking back to the meeting his father and Rukma had with the Bahoi seniors.

“If the Sun Mother is female – why don’t Javanese men care more for their women and girls?”

Eko scoffed.

“Young man – you have a different head!”

The phrase brought Bandri up sharp – this had been the first time he had witnessed scorn from Eko.

“She made men plant their seed into women,” stated Eko. “Without men there are no sons or daughters!”

Mindful that he risked offending Eko, Bandri nodded subserviently, sipping from his cup before venturing:

“My father used to say I had my mother’s ears.”

Eko regarded him with apparent detachment before nodding very slightly, topping up their mugs and adding wryly:

“I will have to see your mother!”

Chuckling with the exchange, the two men drank some more.

“And in Javanese tribes – can a man have many females?” Bandri asked, trying to use the ‘female’ word carefully.

“Oh yes – if he wants,” confirmed Eko. “It depends on how many he can get.”

To Bandri, this sounded like the animals in the forest. He had seen how the monkeys had a dominant male which beat off the smaller males. There again, he thought, maybe this is the natural order of life – that the strong have youngsters and so they survive. But what would happen in a tribe if every man tried to ‘plant their seed’ in as many women as they could? What could happen if one man had all the women?

“Our seniors only have one wife each,” he informed Eko.

“So have I,” said Eko, downing the remains of his mug in one gulp. “But I have heard that some Malay have more than one!”

The cubeb berry intoxicant seemed to be having some effect on Bandri – the colours around him appeared vividly florescent. He saw Eko looking at his mug, as if he was surprised that it was not empty.

“Tell me more about Likupang, young man,” Eko said, topping up both mugs again. “What do I need to know?”

Bandri decided to explain the circumstances of his father’s death, and how it had happened following a meeting with the Bahoi seniors…

“It was Agung who found father and carried him back to Likupang,” related Bandri, the painful memory crushing his heart again, and he ground to a halt, breathing unsteadily.

Eko encouraged him to drink some more.

“We knew that if vengeance was taken on Bahoi it would start a war,” he explained, with another sip of juice. “So we put our efforts into building the big boat to save the family.”

“You were afraid for the girls,” said Eko quietly. “That’s what started it all?”

“They’re our sisters – we love them. They deserve men who can love them.”

“We wanted our girls to be safe too, but in Bitung the danger was too much.”

Neither man spoke for a while.

“This is all because so many men are like animals!” Eko pronounced sourly. “They don’t understand respect for women – or girls.. They don’t respect them – they just want them!”

Eko poured more bright blue liquid into Bandri’s mug and looked towards the sulphurous sunset.

“One day,” he said as if in prayer. “The Sun Mother may make the spirit of man stronger than the animal in his body.”

 

~~~~~

 

A delegation from Likupang had been assembled. Agung and Ayu were to go in one boat, while Praba and Joyah were to go in another boat.

The selection of Joyah as a representative had been the result of a long debate at the village meeting. Likupang needed to be protected, and so it was decided that no more than two men could go. At first light, Andhika had taken a boat along the front of the mangrove swamps to view Bahoi from distance, where the village seemed peaceful with some men preparing their fishing nets. However, during the visit to Pantai the Likupang families would stay close together in the strongest houses while Harta kept a lookout.

Ayu had not told Agung’s secret to anyone in their village, having thought it best to meet the family first. She had told her brother to keep his silence about this, and let her do the talking. Ayu was eager to meet the family, especially the girls, and of course she longed to see her husband after his many days of absence.

In the early morning, Agung pulled the two small boats down the beach so that they were now on the edge of the surf line, where the women were helped aboard. Ayu and Joyah sat down in the bows, each holding a paddle. Ayu had tucked her long hair up into a bunch hidden inside the wide-brimmed fisherman’s hat. The men gave each boat a shove so that they launched bow-first into the waves breaking onto the beach. Agung and Praba with practised skill jumped into the sterns.

Ayu thrilled to the sensation of the spraying surf before shooting out onto the shimmering green and blue flecked surface of the sea, where the little craft skimmed over the gentle waves. She had put in a few paddle strokes to help them through the surf, but could never keep up with the powerful athlete behind her. She turned to smile at him and put the paddle down inside the boat, relaxing to absorb the moment. The other boat kept pace alongside. She smiled across at the grinning Joyah who had also shipped her paddle.

Praba loved the sea. He loved being a fisherman. Ayu watched as he plunged in his paddle to grasp the water, pulled the handle back and gave it a little flick at the end of the stroke to keep the boat straight. Somewhere in this fluid movement he bent his body and then powerfully jerked it upright, adding continuous forward momentum. The paddle was lifted, brought forward, and plunged with hardly a splash. With years of practise, he made it look so easy. After several strokes on one side he swapped to the other side to ease the effort.

They were going east along the coast, just clear of the surf. Travelling past their beach, they now headed further out into the bay to cruise past mangrove swamps. The little breathing roots poking up through the mud were being washed over and submerged by the rising tide.

In the nurseries between the arching mangrove roots, small fish were growing into bigger fish before venturing out to sea. White-faced herons stood hunched on their untidy nests in the over-hanging branches and looked down into the teaming waters. Small flocks of herons broke into their bouncing flight with high-pitched calls of rank-oooooooooh as their boats passed alongside, and she saw the long serrated shape of a crocodile slipping into the water.

The bright morning sun bounced off the ruffled water’s surface, radiating warmth onto her face and arms, even though they were being chilled by the salty freshness as they slid through the air. The bodice of her best batik sarong filled with the sea breeze – the fabric trying to balloon from its restraints around her waist. The pleasing air current flowed under the fabric and breathed across the freed surface of her breasts.

They passed a small cove fringed by emerald greens where the waves curled with a liquid lustre of the purest blue before breaking into dazzling white surf. She looked out across the brilliant turquoise bay towards the two islands, with the horizon behind. The sky was blue. The air was blue, as if she could hold it in her hand, blue.

Looking down Ayu glimpsed so many fish of different sizes and colour, some darting away as their boat approached. The flexing shadow of their boat moved over the turquoise-yellow of the sandy seabed, then over shifting green sea grass or outcrops of darker rock and coloured coral.

On one side of the boat she could see her own fluctuating reflection looking back at her from the glassy smoothness of the clear liquid flowing past. Draping her hand over the side, she felt the friendly caress as her fingers clawed the coolness of the water. Scooping her hand and lifting, the silvery liquid spilled out into crystal drops, each droplet landing onto the pristine surface with individual splashes, each making circles of tiny ripples which disappeared behind as their boat ploughed onwards. Idly, she tasted her wet fingers, enjoying the fresh saltiness.

She watched the large pod of dolphins that frequented the bay, their fins cutting the surface, drawing closer. Not far away, several spirits at a time broke the surface, puffing and trilling as they herded a shoal of fish. Shining streamlined dolphins leapt free of the surface, joyously twisting in mid-air to splash down into baskets of spray, driving the shoal into shallower water.

There was so much wonder and so much beauty. She closed her eyes for a few moments and prayed, then opened her eyes again. Thanking Mother Earth, she saw the beauty was still there.

 

After a while they approached a cliff that jutted out into the sea. Her brother had stopped paddling and beckoned to Praba to bring his boat closer so they could talk. As the two small boats gently bobbed in the waves Agung said:

“Past this cliff is a beach – we go in there.”

“They know who Agung is,” said Joyah. “He should land first.”

“Then he can do the introductions,” said Praba in a calculated manner.

Ayu looked around at her brother, his torso glistening with perspiration. She could sense how nervous he was, although he hid it well. She leaned back a little and smiled at him:

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “Now try to relax.”

They set off again, slower this time, with their boat in the lead.

 

~~~~~

 

At this time Listeri was in the kitchen and the sisters were harvesting some vegetables in the garden behind the house. The family had brought Eko out to enjoy the fresh air on the porch and Bandri had his leg propped up to help the swelling go down; the men were once again deeply engrossed in a long conversation about snakes. Raharjo had been sent to collect some flat pebbles from the beach for the names of the snakes.

The boy saw the boats approaching, recognised Agung and ran to help pull the first boat onto the sand, staring with an open mouth at the lady seated in the bow. She smiled at him and asked softly:

“Are you Raharjo?”

Stunned into silence, he nodded quickly and smiled back. Agung steadied her hand as she stepped gracefully with bare feet onto the dry white sand. Raharjo led the way up the path, walking backwards much of the time; he had still not been able to say anything.

Listeri saw the visitors approaching up the path, went into the porch and touched her husband’s shoulder. Eko looked up and followed his wife’s eyes, and then Bandri stopped in mid-sentence to follow their wordless gaze.

Bandri had forgotten to foresee the impact Ayu could have – on himself as well as the others. The shining sun was behind her as she glided towards them. The swirling patterns on the simple sarong complimented her elegant moving figure as the sunrays shone though the fabric around her body. Her shaded bare neck and face were crowned by the native hat which accentuated the poise of the person below. Behind this apparition, was the bodyguard figure of Agung, followed by Joyah and Praba.

Bandri was still adjusting to this joyous sight, when Ayu gave him a gorgeous welcoming smile which sent him stumbling to his feet. Apparently unaware of the impression she was making, she stepped onto the porch, smiling first at Listeri and Eko, and then removing her hat so that she could kiss her husband on both cheeks. Agung reached out to receive the hat, as her hair fell free in cascades around her shoulders.

Seeing that Eko was unable to stand up, Ayu bent her knees to hold the hand he had reached out for her. Raharjo, who had just begun to recover from his surprise, provided a seat for her.

Bandri took charge of the introductions.

“Eko and Listeri – please meet Ayu.”

“Thank you for visiting us,” said Eko smiling naturally, politely avoiding looking at her for too long by welcoming the other strangers. “Thank you all for visiting us at our small place – please take a seat after your journey.”

As Joyah and Praba stepped into the porch, Bandri introduced them. At that moment, he felt rather glad that the two sisters had not yet appeared.

Everyone had been found a seat, except for Raharjo who stood beside Bandri. A conversation had begun about Bandri’s leg and how well it was healing, when Lyana and Lela appeared carrying newly dug root-vegetables. Ayu stood up, prompting the others to stand.

There was a perceptible pause in events as the young women looked at each other, thinking thoughts unfathomable to the men. Insofar as may be known, Lyana and Lela were conscious of their dirty hands and less than perfect attire, whereas Ayu was assessing their suitability for her brother. Agung was petrified, and everyone else was still adjusting when Ayu took the initiative, leaning forward to kiss each of them on the cheeks.

Bandri completed the introductions for everyone.

Raharjo provided seating for everyone. He received hats, a machete, a knife and two bows with their quivers of arrows for safe-keeping, which he placed against the side of the house inside the porch. Next he ran to the pond twice for drinking water. Unnoticed by the assembly, he then slipped away.

Lyana and Lela had made their excuses, withdrawing from the visitors to wash and put on their best sarongs, while Listeri started preparations for a meal. Ayu quietly indicated to Agung to join her as she went to help Listeri in the kitchen, giving her brother the task of peeling and chopping vegetables, which he did patiently and obediently, thus keeping him busy and out of the way of the delicate negotiations. Ayu chatted with Listeri about spices and native recipes, as they pulled apart cloves, ground peppers and chopped lemon grass.

Meanwhile Eko, Bandri, Praba and Joyah together started discussing the difficult matter of whether the family could realistically join the Likupang tribe. Bandri was looking for an opportunity to talk privately with Praba. In polite time, Bandri made an excuse that he needed to exercise his leg with a short walk; Praba helped to steady him, so leaving Joyah to talk with Eko.

“My leg is alright – but we needed to have a talk,” said Bandri once they were sufficient distance from the others.

“What’s going on with the two girls?!” demanded Praba. “And what’s wrong with Eko?!”

“Maybe Eko is dying – I don’t know how long he has to live – he is worried for the safety of his family.”

“Bandy – you know we need more men at Likupang – we have trouble defending the girls. What will happen if the tribesmen from Bahio see all these girls?”

“ The boy, Raharjo will be a good man and -”

“He’s young!” Praba cut in dismissively.

“He would be a good companion for Harta.”

“Bandy – You’re forgetting this family is Java?!”

“They’re good people – they respect their women – you can see that. They left Bitung because of the bad customs of the tribesmen down there.. We can understand each other.”

“How do you know the girls don’t want Java men?!”

Bandri couldn’t find a clear answer, but stopped walking and stared speechless at his brother. Praba ran his hands through his hair.

“They’re still from Java!” Praba stated emphatically. “Java – You know what that means?!”

“Praba – What do you think could happen to the girls if they stay here?”

The question hung in the air. After a few moments Praba simply muttered:

“I don’t know.”

“I will tell you what will happen – I think Agung will come here to stay – he likes the girls a lot – he likes the family.”

“Bandy!” Praba glared at his brother with great agitation. “We have to talk frankly – you know the girls are wanted because they’re not married.. More – they’re wanted because they’re young – without children, healthy, pretty.. beautiful even – the Java tribes will be after them!”

Bandri took a deep breath. He knew the words to be true in the world in which they lived.

“Likupang has three wanted girls already!” Praba emphasised. “This would add two more!”

Bandri floundered as he thought about the whole idea of Eko’s family joining Likupang. With his brother’s words ringing in his ears, he glanced back at his beautiful young wife. He knew how important any decision would be.

“Mel and Suk are too young to marry,” stated Bandri, desperately striving for sense.

“Yes brother – I agree.. But that doesn’t stop them being wanted!.. And who will marry Lyana and Lela?!” Praba said, looking his brother squarely in the eye. “So they have children soon?!”

“Agung will decide,” said Bandri, as he searched for meaning and traction in this horrendous dilemma. “He’s getting to know the girls better – we need to give him time.”

“Bandy – I’m the oldest brother, and I have a duty to look after the village. He’ll need to decide soon if he wants to marry.. If we accept this family then we have to think about another thing – men could take a second wife.”

Praba was waiting for a response, but Bandri couldn’t give him one right now.

“As the oldest brother – it would be my duty to take another wife.”

Bandri hesitated as he thought about it. Why didn’t I see that coming!? I am a fool – any man can see how attractive the sisters are – my brother included! Trying to overlook Praba’s last statement, he tried a different tack.

“Last night I stayed in the second house here with Raharjo.. Agung could stay here for a while – I can paddle back today..It will give him a chance to get to know them better.”

Just then Lyana and Lela returned onto the porch.

Bandri could see they wore the same sarongs as on his first visit, but this time the fabric was wrapped more closely around their figures, loose enough to show they were ladies but tight enough to show they were women; just tight enough to betray their high, pert breasts pushing at the material. On the shoulders were attached the shiny bronze brooches – the dolphin on the left shoulder of Lyana, and the bird on the right shoulder of Lela. Now immaculately groomed, both sisters had the ornate clasps in their hair. Indeed, their youthful feminine attractiveness was there for all to see.

Joyah and Ayu met the young women and were obviously complimenting them. The brothers watched as each of the sisters took a little walk along the porch, right to the end, where they demurely turned to walk back to the appreciative feminine remarks from Joyah and Ayu about the style of their sarongs. From the kitchen Agung was able to see the brief show, as each lady reached the end and turned to go back.

Although it was subtly done, Bandri perceived that the display by the young women was mainly for the benefit of the quiet awestruck man in the kitchen. Bandri turned to look at his older brother who had also witnessed the show. Praba was quiet, staring at the sisters and sucking his lip in contemplation.

 

The meal was ready.

Eko was propped up in his seat, with his wife on one side and Bandri on the other. Rubbed-up close next to Bandri sat Ayu, and then the two sisters, then Joyah, Praba and Agung – all crowded around the table in the porch, sitting on any available chair or log.

“Where’s Raharjo?” asked Eko.

Until that moment, everybody had been so involved that the absence of the boy had not been noticed. Listeri went to look around the house, and in a short while returned with her son who was squashed in between his sisters.

This was a problematic moment since the customs at the start of such a meal may be quite different, depending on the tribal background. No commitment had yet been established that Eko’s family would be accepted into the Likupang tribe. The delicate negotiations had reached a compromise agreement; Agung would stay at Pantai for a couple of days until everyone in Likupang had been given a say in deciding the outcome.

The Javanese spiritual customs differed from Malay ones. Eko and Bandri had talked about such things, and so they wanted to avoid a dispute about such matters.

Kami mengucapkan terima kasih kepada tetamu untuk melawat kami.” – “We thank our guests for visiting us,” announced Eko. “Anda adalah dialu-alukan di meja kami – Mungkin semua nenek moyang kami gembira dengan kami.” – “You are welcome at our table – May all our ancestors be happy with us.”

The tension eased.

Mungkin semua nenek moyang kami gembira dengan kami,” Bandri replied.

It was an idyllic setting in the mid-day shade, surrounded by the lushness of vegetation, the songs of wildlife and the pleasing beat of the gentle waves breaking on the small beach beyond. Everyone tucked into the diverse dishes that had been conjured up by Listeri and Ayu. The conversation however was restrained and formal. Many polite and fleeting glances, which spoke more than any words, were exchanged amongst the diners.

 

It was now mid-afternoon and the guests from Likupang were leaving. Agung remained on the porch with Eko, while the others walked down the path to the beach.

Praba prepared to launch the boat with Joyah sat in the bow, as Ayu and Bandri stood beside their boat saying goodbye to Listeri and her two daughters. Just at this point Raharjo stepped timidly up to the lady from Likupang. As the others watched, he held up a large Triton seashell as a gift. Inside the furled opening of the heavy ornate seashell were two freshly gathered golden honeycombs, carefully placed in side by side. It was a gift from the boy to the lady and gentleman from Likupang; a simple and beautiful gift from the land, sea and air.

Ayu was stunned motionless for a few moments. With tears in her eyes, she reverently crouched down and accepted the gift with both hands, kissing the boy on the cheek.

 

~~~~~

 

“We must talk,” declared Praba.

The two boats slowed, coming closer togther in the swell, just beyond the cliff that jutted into the sea. Praba felt an anxiety that he had not experienced since the murder of his father. He liked the Pantai girls but he knew the Bahoi tribesmen would like them too. There was no way his family and everyone at Likupang could be safe if the family joined, and they had just lost Agung!

“This is a big problem,” he told them. “Agung is the man the Bahoi tribesmen fear – we need more men in Likupang to defend everyone.”

“You saw he wasn’t going to leave the girls,” said Bandri. “And you can see they want him there too.”

“Look how the boy gave that lovely gift to Ayu,” Joyah chipped in emotionally. “He did that himself.”

Praba ran his hand through his hair in frustration:

“We need more men!” he shouted. “Don’t you understand!?”

Both women started to weep, but Praba’s mind whirled with emotions and thoughts too powerful to take heed of such things.

“We have to try and understand Agu,” Ayu pleaded, tears running from her eyes. “He doesn’t know how to handle his feelings. We have to give him time – everybody wants him back.”

Unable to change what was happening Praba shook his head and glared at his troublesome younger brother:

“We’ve been away too long – we need to get back fast!” he blared. “Can you do that, Bandy?”

 

[] [] *7* Worlds Apart

Bandri could see everyone running down the beach as they approached. The waves were breaking vigorously onto the sand, casting white spray into the air. The children ran down into the edge of the surf, happy and shouting with the adults following.

Their boats surfed onto the beach. Rukma helped his daughter step out into the crowd.

“The family is looking after Agu – he’s very happy,” she proclaimed.

Bandri lifted himself out of the boat, greeted firstly by a smiling Melati who gave him a long hug, and then Sukma. He looked down into their innocent pretty faces, feeling relieved and protective. Sukma seemed to be hugging him for an overly long time with her ear pressed to his chest.

“I’m happy to see you dear sister – and you too Suk.”

After greetings from Endah and the others, Joyah started to explain in detail what had happened during the visit. Breaking away from the crowd, Bandri and Ayu held hands and walked up the beach to their house. Ayu’s left arm cradled under her breast the beautiful seashell with its golden cargo.

Ayu gazed at the two golden honeycombs in the ornate pearl-pink opening of the heavy shell, and then put it carefully into the storage hammock that hung from the joists. The solid blunt spines held the shell safely in the fine mesh so that it swung gently in its cot with the honeycombs uppermost.

She turned to look at Bandri who had just collected a container of mountain water from the stream. He closed the door. They stood together in the warmth and amber light of the peaceful room, holding each other close and sharing kisses; kisses long and tender, kisses to make up for all those dangerous days apart; the stress of the past receding as their passion took over and they lived in the present.

All that separated their upper bodies was the thin fabric of her sarong. Locked together they swayed gently on their bare feet, standing on the dimpled floor of smooth pebbles and fine sand. Savouring the silence each waited for the other as they held each other upright. They waited and breathed in the closeness of the other.

Their bodies reached a consensus. He scooped her up in his arms and stood briefly in the middle of the room. Her head collapsed onto his shoulder and her eyes told him what she wanted. Stepping to their broad bamboo bed, he laid her carefully down where the life-giving water could satisfy their thirst and wash their naked bodies.

 

Their bodies glowed through a veneer of perspiration as she lay with her head on his chest. Through the gaps over the walls the setting sun threw yellow sunbeams above the lovers.

He remembered something. His left hand reached out and felt the crumpled material of his kathok on the floor. It was still in the pocket.

Fumbling around he delved into the deep pocket and pulled out the nugget. He rinsed it in the vessel of water beside the bed, and then held it up to catch a beam of light.

“A little ‘something’ for you.”

She opened her eyes, and looked up.

“It’s lovely Bri,” she mumbled, still dozy.

He chuckled, and laid the nugget in her palm.

“Thank you,” she murmured more cogently, feeling its surprising weight in her hand. “What is it?”

“I don’t know – it’s not bronze – but something else.”

He had an idea.

Her head slipped off his chest as he left her lying on the bed looking at the shiny rock. Getting to his feet he stepped unclothed to the hanging seashell, and carefully prised out a honeycomb, returning to lie down beside her with mischief in his eyes.

He offered the honeycomb to her mouth as she lay naked on the bed. With an impish smile she took a modest nibble, breaking open the honey-filled waxen cells. Golden syrup spilled out and dribbled. Another sticky bite encouraged more glistening drips onto her giggling chin and neck.

She put the nugget down on her flat stomach, and it settled into the subtle depression of her belly button. Holding the honeycomb, she fed them its energy. Picking up the nugget, he held it under the dripping comb, turning it around a little as the honey clung to the rock, and then held it up above them in the beam of sunlight. There it glowed, a great golden translucent drop of honey. She gasped at its beauty, and giggled as he put the tiny phallus between her open lips. With inviting eyes she closed her lips on the honeyed gift.

The smooth sweetness of the honey drops fused with the faint saltiness of perspiration and passion. She yearned again the pushing apart of her flesh and accepted him into her very being, willing him to impregnate her. The bamboo bed creaked again with pleasure and joy, while the nugget jostled beside them on the polished bamboo wood, finally rolling over the edge and falling to the floor.

 

~~~~~

 

After landing on the beach Praba had sought out Andhika. The two broke off from the rest, talking as they walked over to the half-finished boat.

“Andhy – we’ve got a problem.”

“What’s happened to Agung?”

“He’s with the family.”

“Are they really Java?”

“Yes – Java – what will happen if Bahoi find out!? – the family has two girls – he likes them – a lot!”

“The tribesmen at Bahoi won’t like that.. What are the girls like?”

“Young, pretty, shapely.. they’re attractive alright!.. It’s easy to see why he wants to stay – but I don’t know if they really like him – maybe they’re just playing around with him – just wanting a big man to protect them.. They’ve been on their own for a long time – they could want Java men?”

“What about the Java father?”

“He can’t walk – he’s dying.”

Andhika stopped walking and stared at Praba, worry etched in his face.

“So there’s just the girls, the mother and the boy?!”

“Yes. If Java tribesmen found them, the family would be taken in.”

“Praba – you know what that could mean for the girls!?”

“That’s what Bandy says – but we have to think of our families first!”

“If Bahoi realise that Agung isn’t here anymore, but after young Java women, there could be trouble,” worried Andhika. “I don’t think they’ll stay away – we know what happened when they wanted Mel and Suk.”

Praba ran his hand through his wind-blown hair, trying to think clearly. He tried not to think about the way his father died.

“I told Bandy that!” he vexed. “If we have more young women the Bahoi men will see them in the village – they keep an eye on us I’m sure!”

“At least we’d have Agung back,” Andhika muttered. “We need him.”

“I know we do,” admitted Praba. “I’ll tell you something else – my mother thinks Agung will be a good match for Mel – but she’s still so young. Do you think he’ll wait around when he has two pretty women available for him?”

“Does Mel know this?”

“I’m not sure – maybe – but I don’t think Agung’s interested now.” Praba sucked his lip. After thinking hard without success for a few moments he ran his hand repeatedly and uncontrollably through his hair, shaking his head in worry again.

“Agung’s going to stay with the Java family for a while. But we have to think of our village. What if my mother sees a Java family coming into Likupang – it could kill her?”

“But she’s doesn’t understand..,” said Andhika, then hesitated and put a hand on Praba’s shoulder mumbling “She’s alright.”

Praba had stopped thinking about his mother right now. Uppermost in his mind was the threat from Bahoi.

“Andhy – we need to try and find some more good men for the village – we have families to protect – we’ll ask Rukma too.. We can ask our Malay tribes for any good men they can send.”

Praba fear for the safety of his family tore at his guts. He knew Andhika understood what could happen. Everyone in Likupang was in danger!

“But my tribe has moved away!.. I think they’re many days walk away – further than Manado. When I came to Likupang we didn’t have children, and Bahoi wasn’t there.. I’m worried about leaving for that long now that Agung’s gone.”

“We’re cut off now – the Java dogs are sniffing all around us!” bemoaned Praba. “There must be Malay tribes somewhere near Manado!?”

“But we looked before,” Andhika groaned, shaking his head. “The Malay have moved away from Manado. I don’t know if we could find any men who would leave their own families – and come that far to help us here.. The big boat is still the safest way.”

“I promised father to build the boat,” Praba groaned in despair.

Only with the boat did they feel they could protect the women and children on the long voyage along the coast until they found their kinsfolk. The two men gazed at the big boat. It was big enough and strong enough, but nowhere near complete.

“I wish it was ready my good friend,” said Andhika. “But it isn’t!”

Praba cursed and threw a big pebble at a crocodile lying semi-submerged like a log in the river. The rock bounced off its nostril and it sprang into life, disappearing in a frenzied splash.

“What can we do Andhy?” asked Praba, slightly mollified.

“First we could look at Bahoi,” suggested Andhika after a pause. “So we can plan what’s best.. We could see how many men they have and what they’re doing – we need to get close enough to see what’s going on there.”

In desperation Praba settled thankfully on a decision.

“You’re right Andhy – We need to have a look at Bahoi.”

 

Cursing under his breath, Praba marched back down to the beach to sort out the boats. He worried about the Java tribesmen finding out what had happened. They needed Agung here! If those young Pantai girls came here Bahoi would soon find out! As a senior, he more than anybody would have to protect the girls and he already had a family to look after, as well as Mel and Suk! And they’d take Ayu – Bandy doesn’t live in the real world! If the Java dogs attacked they wouldn’t have a chance!

However, one redeeming thought lingered in his mind. If everybody else wanted to take on the family and he had to agree, then in his position he deserved one of those Pantai girls himself. He could imagine the pleasure such an arrangement would bring. He wanted many more children, and a pregnant woman would be less desirable to the Java than a ‘childless young female’.

 

~~~~~

 

Joyah tried her diplomatic best to explain to the rest of the family what had happened during the visit to Pantai. The small impromptu meeting took place in the beach shelter while the young children played on the sand around them. Puteri had understood the main point that Agung was staying at Pantai and decided to take Endah away from the questions and answers that followed. Rukma, Kusama, Melati and Sukma listened quietly while Harta kept asking questions.

“Is Agung staying at Pantai because of the women?”

Harta’s question was direct, and Joyah tried to give a constructive answer.

“I think he wants to help them,” she answered.

“Are the girls pretty?”

“Well – yes I think they are,” she admitted honestly.

“Does Agung like them?” Harta persisted. “Is that why he’s staying there?”

Melati took a deep breath, and listened very carefully.

Joyah didn’t answer straight away, but her hesitation seemed to confirm Harta’s question.

“Does Agung want the girls?” Harta asked bluntly.

“The family seems very good – yes I think he likes the girls and all the family.”

Melati realised that there was a connection between Agung and two girls she had never met. The air around her seemed awash with noise that she didn’t want to hear. Feeling faint, her body took involuntary quick breaths. Unnoticed by the others, she turned away and walked hurriedly but unsteadily back to her house, hiding her face as tears welled up from deep inside.

At the beach shelter, Harta had now noticed that Bandri was not around to explain what had happened, when he probably knew more than anybody about what was going on.

“Where’s Bandy!? – He should be telling us all about what happened?”

“Hatty,” said Sukma. “He hasn’t been with Ayu for many days.”

The young girl felt the gaze of the adults, and turned to look for her best friend Melati who had been standing just behind her, but she was not there. Glancing desperately around, Sukma saw Melati disappearing into the house, and ran after her.

“What’s wrong with them?” muttered Harta, shrugging.

“I don’t know,” said a concerned Kusama, who then followed quickly after the girls.

 

Eventually, Kusama sent Rukma to bring Ayu over to their house so that she could try to help the weeping girls and maybe console them. Bandri and Rukma decided that it would be wiser to steer clear of whatever the issues were, and let their spouses try to sort it out.

In the evening Bandri, Ayu, Rukma, Kusama, Melati and Sukma ate together on the porch outside Rukma’s house.

“ My husband collected snake fruit for you,” Kasuma told him. “Do you know -”

“It’s good for snake bite,” said Bandri. “Yes, your son told me.”

“That’s good then,” said Rukma. “There’s a snake palm not far away.”

Bandri smiled politely.

“It’s good to hear our son is happy at Pantai,” said Kasuma. “I hope it all works out for the best, but we need to have him here with us in Likupang.”

“I’ll go back to Pantai as soon as possible,” said Bandri. “It’s better to go by boat and then I could take one of you with me. But I don’t think more than one man should go – Praba is really worried that we need to look after the village here.”

“I agree,” nodded Rukma sagely.

“You should go first Kusama,” suggested Melati quietly, having regained her composure.

“I want to go and see Agu,” said Sukma ernestly. “When you go, can I go with you?” she enthused, looking at Bandri.

“Dear Suky daughter,” said her father gently: “I think your mother should go first.”

“As long as the sea is calm,” said Kasuma. “I really want to see what this family is like.”

“I hope our son is not making a big mistake,” Rukma pondered out loud, forgetting for a moment that the girls were present. “He’s innocent in the ways of women. He’s trying to understand two girls from Java.”

Bandri grew uneasy as he watched his young sister’s expression. The women made faces but as yet Rukma was still unaware and rambled on:

“ They’ve been on their own with this family since they were young. We don’t know how -”

“This is something we can talk about later dear!” cut in Kasuma, unusually interrupting her husband firmly.

“I was only at Pantai for a while, but the family seem very pleasant,” said Ayu, tactfully filling the void. “After a few days Agu will know what he wants.”

“There’s something else we have been thinking about,” said Kusama, changing the subject. “Everybody keeps saying that we need men to look after the village – but the women could help – we understand what the problem is.. The women could use bows too if they’re needed.”

Rukma now appeared to realise that this was a better topic for conversation.

“It’s a good idea,” he said. “The women could practise on the beach with some targets.”

“I’ll do it,” said Sukma enthusiastically. “It’s not fair that only the boys are shown how to use bows.”

“Perhaps we can try tomorrow?” Ayu said.

“Not tomorrow – but soon,” said Rukma. “Praba and Andhy have decided that we need to have a look at Bahoi tomorrow.”

Bandri looked at Rukma and the two men got up from the table to walk out from the porch. Once at a discrete distance from the others, Bandri asked:

“Who do you think should go?”

“Your leg needs to recover – anyway you’re needed here. Harta is keen to go – I expect he’s already planning it now with Praba. Do you think he’s ready?”

“He’s got plenty of energy – and really wants to see what Bahoi is like,” said Bandri thoughtfully. “Maybe it would be better for him to go with Andhy.. If my two brothers went together they could get angry with the people at Bahoi – they might get too close and make a mistake.”

Rukma raised a solitary eyebrow in acknowledgement of Bandri’s concern.

“I understand what you’re saying. In the morning, we can both say the same – that we need Praba here with us to look after the village, so it’s better that Andhy goes with Harta.”

 

~~~~~

 

Agung felt as if he was in another world – a world inhabited by two beautiful girls who he liked very much indeed, and who seemed to like him too. But the newness and delicate sensuality of his circumstances he found almost frightening.

It had been so difficult saying goodbye to Ayu and Bandri knowing that they were short of men to defend Likupang. He felt guilty and worried about dear Suk and his parents. But how could he leave Pantai? If only this family wasn’t Javanese!?

The sisters made up a bed for him in the second house. He was served first at the evening meal, despite his protestations. The women busied around him cooking and cleaning, while he was told to relax – which is just what he couldn’t do. The attention made him feel embarrassed. Still shy of being left on his own with Lyana and Lela, when Eko and Listeri retired for the night he too made the excuse of needing an early night.

He lay on his bed wide awake, listening to the sound of the surf not far away and trying to adapt to this new world. He spent much of the night staring up at the bamboo rafters, unable to sleep. By the morning he had decided to focus on being busy.

He volunteered to fix the leak in the house roof. First he and Raharjo made up the coconut leaf slats, and then he climbed up to pull the old ones off the roof.

“You are letting light into our world,” commented Eko from his bed below.

He balanced on a bamboo ladder while Lyana and Lela handed up the slats. At each handing up of a slat by a smiling sister, he became more used to smiling back. Looking down into their friendly faces for short periods of time from a safe distance seemed to make it easier.

From the ladder, he tried not to look down below their faces, since their female shapes made him quiver with uncertainty. He did not want them to think he was looking at their bodies, although as they walked away he allowed himself to glance at their beguiling feminine figures. Beneath their loose sarongs, he appreciated the poise of their shoulders and fluid movement of their hips, and also the subtle differences between the sisters. Lyana’s body seemed stronger whereas Lela’s body was slimmer and moved with even more lightness, both kindling in him a scintillating excitement and hope for the future.

Later in the afternoon he accompanied them to collect water from the very pond where they first met, crystal clear to the sandy bottom from where the water percolated in. At one angle, they discovered their reflections on the languid waters – his own body seeming so hulking behind the gracefulness of the smiling sisters.

“Father tells us not to bathe in the pond.”

Lyana’s voice glinted with secrecy, and her sister gave a suppressed giggle.

“It would be dangerous if tribesmen found you here,” he told them, remembering how he had discovered this place.

“Yes.. We should swim with our clothes on,” said Lyana airily.

Lela dropped her empty bucket and immediately trotted back to the house. As the happy young man carried the full containers back with Lyana, his stimulated imagination prevented him from talking.

The sisters lavished much time on feeding and petting the puppies, naming them Asu and Anjing. Agung found himself being guardian to the wriggling puppies as the sisters called out their names to give them treats when they obeyed. The three of them collected the long fruit from the tamarind tree that grew beside the house, savouring the sweet chewy flesh and then played silly games with the stones. Around them thrummed the wild noises of the forest, familiar and seductive. By the time of the evening meal, Agung had become more at ease in their company.

He was also appreciating the subtle personality differences between the two sisters. It seemed that they were so assimilated in each other’s company, that somehow they were different parts of the same personality. They were not competing for his attention but willingly shared his company, sitting on each side of him in the evening, chatting about all the small important things that make up life.

 

~~~~~

 

The day after the visit to Pantai, an early morning meeting had been convened. A map had been scratched in the sand near the beach shelter. The men and a few of the women stood around it, talking.

Two large stones had been used to mark Likupang and Bahoi to the northwest. Between the two villages the low ridge of hills and higher ground had been roughly scratched in, and also the islands of mangroves in the bay were shown. Pantai had been marked with a cross.

“If Andhy and Harta are going then using a boat would be best,” said Praba. “As long as they can get through the channel – there are a lot of roots. They won’t expect anyone to come through the mangroves.”

“Why?” asked Sukma.

“Crocodiles and snakes,” Bandri replied with a bland tone as he tried to make it seem less frightening for the girls who were present. In a half-joking manner he added: “And evil spirits.”

“Why not use the path next to the mangroves – isn’t it the shortest?” Joyah asked, evidently hoping to find a safer route.

“There’s a good chance they keep a lookout along there – that why we put someone up on top of that hill,” explained Praba, pointing over the river.

“There’s a tall tree just here,” Harta said, pointing to the high ground on the map nearer to Bahoi. “You can see Bahoi well from there.”

Bandri knew his young brother well and guessed he might have tried doing that already.

“I hope you haven’t been that close before?!”

“It’s an old strangler fig.. You can climb up inside it – they can’t see you.. Don’t you think they get up on that hill overlooking our village – they could be up there now wondering where the big scary man is with long hair?”

“You have – haven’t you?!” declared Bandri, angry now because of his snide reference to Agung.

Harta gave him a shrug. In response Bandri lashed out, giving Harta a hard clout on the ear, telling him:

“Don’t talk about him like that!”

Harta reeled from the strike, as Praba asserted his seniority by giving Harta another quick stinging cuff on the ear that nearly knocked him off his feet.

“Harta – never do that! Not unless we agree first – do you understand?!”

“Alright!” Harta whined, holding his aching ear. “Alright – I’m sorry.”

“We do need a lookout on that hill,” said Bandri, making an effort to sound calm since he wished that hadn’t happened in front of the girls. At least he thought that it might make Harta more cautious spying on Bahoi today.

“If Hatty’s going then I could keep a lookout on the hill?” Sukma offered brightly.

“Oh Suk?” Ayu put her arm around her. “That’s a good offer, but we’re needed to look after the young children.” Ayu glanced back as she guided the girls away from the gathering, while the men looked at each other seriously.

“Sukma has to know exactly why the girls must stay in the village,” said Praba firmly.

Bandri lowered his head as he thought about dear Sukma, and wishing that the girls could have more freedom.

“The tide is rising so it’s a good time to try using a boat,” said Andhika, bringing the meeting back on track. “As long as we’re not too long we could get back while it’s still high water.”

“Andhy makes good sense,” concluded Rukma. “I can be lookout on the hill.”

 

Andhika sat in the bow of the smallest boat and Harta sat in the stern, his ear red and throbbing. Both carried bows with plenty of arrows and two stout spears since they would come in useful for punting the boat through the shallow waters of the mangrove swamps, and possibly warding off crocodiles. After Rukma had signalled the all clear from the hill, they slipped out from the river. Bandri and Praba ensured that the rest of the village stayed close together near the two strongest houses.

“Look out all the time for crocodiles,” Andhika briefed Harta as they paddled towards the mangrove swamps. He explained in detail the type of water they frequented, where they rested, how a crocodile stalked its prey and how, after grabbing its prey it will drag it under and roll its body viciously, and that he should only put his feet in shallow water where there was no wider channel. After he had given him the benefit of all this native knowledge he added:

“The water snakes are not dangerous, unless you cuddle them.”

Harta cogitated on all the information he had been given.

“Do crocodiles try and grab the outriggers?” he said, asking the question that always bothered him.

Andhika gave a little laugh, answering:

“As Agung would say – ‘Not usually’!”

“What if you get grabbed by a crocodile?” Harta asked as casually as he could manage.

Andhika turned to look at him, raised his eyebrows and blew out his cheeks in a scary gesture while jabbing his fingers in the air.

“Hold your breath.. And try poking its eyes – It might let go!”

Before they turned left into the narrow drainage channel between the mangrove on the mainland and the low-lying mangrove swamps in the bay, they prepared their poisoned arrows. Each had small pig-skin pouches containing the freshly prepared poisonous sticky syrup. The arrowheads were dipped and turned to get a good covering, and then the readied arrows were put in a couple of pouches hung inside the hull of the small boat.

“Andhy.. Where’s the best place to hit a crocodile?” enquired Harta, adding: “I mean with an arrow?”

Andhika didn’t turn round as he paddled.

“If it’s in the muddy water, it depends on what you can see – but I would try for the neck – the scales are thinner on the sides and bottom.”

Often progress through the channel was difficult since the outriggers snagged on the breathing roots near the surface. At times, they needed to get out of the boat and lift it over the congested areas, stumbling around in the slippery black muddy water, sometimes over their waists, as they felt for the tangled roots using their bare feet somewhere within the living, squelching ooze, enveloped by the leech infested swamp and haunted by the thoughts of evil spirits lurking in its depths. Smothered in the grey-black, stale-smelling mud they at least had some protection from the mist of midges and mosquitoes, and they better blended in with their surroundings. They became used to the putrid smell and the cacophony of sounds from frogs, birds and other wildlife, allowing themselves to become immersed and hidden within the swamp. They spoke only when they needed to, and then very quietly.

They came to a wider channel, and could see out into the bay again. Here they saw several grey-scaled and watchful salt water monsters resting on a bank, and at least one resting just under the water, although there could be more. Andhika reminded the youth:

“The crocodiles you can’t see are the most dangerous.”

This would be the half way point – beyond this they were transgressing into Bahoi territory. After paddling strongly over the channel, they again entered much shallower water, where Andhika told Harta to stop for a while so they could rest and talk quietly.

“From now on no talking unless it’s absolutely needed,” he explained. “We have to be careful not to suddenly come out of the channel where they could see us – so we take as much time as we need. Keep quiet and listen very carefully. Keep looking about you for any clues.”

Gulping down fresh water, they boosted their stamina with honeycomb and fruit.

Soon they had to give up trying to get the boat along the obstructed channel close to the Bahoi village. Andhika signalled to push the boat out of sight under some large aerial roots. Taking their bows and half of the arrows they continued on foot stealthily weaving through a congested tangle of roots and branches.

By late morning they arrived at the edge of the inlet. Smearing more mud on their faces and upper bodies they chose a screened place where they could look across to the Bahoi village on the other side of the inlet. They were now close enough to see the men, women and children, but not close enough to distinguish facial features.

The village was about the same size as Likupang. In many ways the houses were similar, but two of the houses were taller with another level, and had steps leading to the top floor. They were mostly interested in the men they could see. How many were there? How old were they? What were they doing? But they also watched the boys, women and girls. They needed to watch for as long as they could since people could be in houses or out of sight for much of the time, making a mental note of all they could see.

Andhika needed to pull Harta back more than once from getting any closer. Finally, Andhika signalled that they should return since the tide was dropping now. By the time they broke back out onto the channel near Likupang the sun had dipped below the horizon and they were struggling along in the moonlight, to be met on the beach by a relieved Rukma, who had spent all day on the hill. The two mud-caked and tired spies rinsed themselves off in the night-time surf, and then joined the others at the fire by the beach shelter.

 

“One of them looked really strong – a big man with a beard!” Harta declared. “That’s their senior isn’t it?!” He paused briefly as the men quietly nodded. “I was looking for the tall one with the beard, but I didn’t see him. I counted four men and three boys, four women and two girls – and two babies.”

“I think there were three grown men, and two older boys,” Andhika said. “But we don’t know if they were all in the village – some could be out fishing or in the forest.”

“The older boys were about my age,” Harta went on.. “And the two girls looked about Sukma’s age – one was a bit older I think.. Another thing – there are two bigger houses with another floor on top.”

“For the seniors,” commented Rukma.

Bandri and the others had glimpsed these before from the bay, but still he pondered a little on this observation. What would it be like if Rukma and Praba had such houses to mark their status? The idea of Rukma behaving like that seemed unbelievable.

“How many boats could you see?” asked Praba.

“Two,” replied Harta immediately and Andhika nodded.

“That’s a worry – you would think they’d have more boats – maybe people were out fishing – and some could be in the forest,” said Praba factually. “The problem is they have more men and boys than us and not many women – so they could want girls.”

Bandri still felt there could be another way:

“ If we know there are more of them than us, then perhaps the best thing is to try and talk to them -”

“Bandy – they killed our father!”

“Alright Harta – calm down,” intervened Rukma “We have to think carefully what the best thing is to do – we don’t want to fight between ourselves.”

Praba sighed again and sucked his lip, evidently in turmoil.

Bandri tried a different approach:

“ If we get Agung back first, and also Eko and his family -”

“That’s going to make it worse!” cut in Harta again while Praba shook his head.

“Let him speak, Harta,” coaxed Andhika.

Bandri tried to explain his reasoning:

“We all want Agung back – we need him back – and I know he wants to be back here with his family.. But he can’t leave the family at Pantai – and I’m telling you they’re a good family – Eko and his son respect women.”

“They’re Java!” exploded Praba. Rukma put his hand out to try and calm him down, but Praba stood up and paced around by the fire. “We don’t know what they might do – they could bring in the Java tribesmen!”

“Brother, they were Javanese! – But now they want to be part of us here. You’re worried about having more young women here – and then the tribesmen from Bahoi will want them.”

“That’s true isn’t it?!” pronounced Praba, settling back down on his log.

“What is there to stop the Java tribesmen discovering the family at Pantai – with only Agung to defend them?.. Even he would not be able to stop three or four attacking that place – and he would not give up until they killed him.”

Bandri’s matter of fact statement impacted on the others, and sent a cold shiver even through his own body.

“We must get my son here as soon as possible,” Rukma said seriously, his sonorous voice lacking any of its usual humour. “With the family from Pantai, but the girls have to stay out of sight.” After a pause, he added: “That right – we should hide the girls until we have a better plan.”

“Alright, alright – I hear you,” conceded Praba. “But we don’t want Bahoi to find out.”

“If the family join us we have to think about the best way to do it? Bringing them by boat is best – more so if the father can’t move.” Andhika said looking around at the strained faces. “We must talk it through with our wives to see what they think – this is not something we should do without everybody agreeing.”

“So that is it then!” Rukma concluded. “We talk it over with our wives and meet again first thing in the morning – and then decide.” As he spoke, the most senior tribesman looked directly at Praba, who finally nodded his head in acceptance.

 

As Rukma walked back with Bandri to their houses after the meeting, he put his large hand on the younger man’s shoulder:

“Once they have talked it over I think everyone will see sense.”

“Your family miss Agung don’t they?” said Bandri, remembering how badly affected the girls had been. “I didn’t guess that Mel would react like that – she misses him too.”

Rukma and Bandri raised their eyebrows in mutual understanding.

“I did mean what I said about the girls staying out of sight,” said Rukma seriously. “They’ll need to stay in a house until we think of something.”

 

Bandri and Ayu sat in front of their porch, enjoying the gorgeous full moon as it climbed into the sky. There was silence between them as both gazed upwards at this extraordinarily proud moon that appeared to extinguish the stars all around, bathing everything in luminescence. A high vapour-thin cloud slipped slowly across, creating a moon halo of watery-blue before dissolving into nothingness.

The moonlight glimmered off the calm waters of the bay, and highlighted the features of the surrounding land. Along the sandy beach, Bandri could see egg-laden sea turtles hauling their hulking heavy bodies ashore to laboriously dig incubating pits for their precious offspring.

The crickets shimmered and all of creation seemed at peace, yet Bandri knew that he and the other men still had to be on their guard. If another tribe did want to attack, it would be a suitable night for it. He wished and prayed for a time that he could truly relax and enjoy such a special evening.

Ayu was thinking about her brother.

“I wonder how he’s getting on?”

“He’ll manage alright.”

“It’s amazing that we didn’t know about that family,” she mused. “All that time they were just up the coast.”

“Until Agung found them.”

Ayu laughed.

“So it needed my brother to wash his feet for us to find out?!”

“We knew there was somebody there – but it was well hidden.”

“Well – you should be more curious!” she chided.

He chuckled and looked at Ayu as she gazed upwards at the fatherly face of the marbled moon, following her eyes to study again the pitted circles, lines and shapes so clearly visible tonight. On one edge of the glowing circle he could see little projections and what seemed like shadows – the edge that would be away from where the day’s sun would rise. Each time he had seen the waxing moon over the previous nights, he had looked in particular at the imperfect edge of the curved shadow that appeared to cross over the circle – but now he was certain that it was not just a circle but a ball. It had to be a ball – a very big ball with mountains, maybe like Tongkoko and Klabat.

Now he thought of this giant rocky ball being lit by the Sun Mother somewhere far away on the other side of what must be the enormity of Mother Earth. He conceived of the Father Moon circling Mother Earth and wondered why the same familiar face of the moon always beamed towards them, starting then to imagine what might be on the far side.

“The moon is a ball – isn’t it?” he mused after many moments.

This calm observation made Ayu blink as she looked up again.

“Is it?”

“I think so.”

He told her why he thought so.

“How does the moon stay up there?.. The mountains must be very heavy.”

“I don’t know.”

“So what is the sun?” she asked directly.

“A big ball of fire or something,” he speculated, raising his eyebrows. “Something incredible,” he added reverently.

His wife turned her head to stare wide-eyed at him, and to see that he had returned to gazing upwards.

“She lights up the moon.”

“So her light is looking down on us now,” she added.

He chuckled.

“On Tongkoko you can see further – the sea and the land bend away,” he explained. “We’re on a big ball too. The sun must go around the other side at night – she lights up the other side when we can’t see her, and then comes up again in the morning.”

Ayu blinked several times in contemplation, and turned again to study his moonlit face. He was still concentrating on the glowing, pearl-white spectacle above, puzzling as to why the features on the moon never seemed to change or move round.

“Why doesn’t the fire burn out?” she asked.

“I don’t know.. Maybe it will one day?”

“No it won’t,” she insisted, cuddling onto his arm. “It never will – she will never die.”

He turned his face to smile at her. In silence, their eyes held each others in understanding for a few moments, before they both gazed upwards again. A little later still, she turned to kiss him on the cheek.

“So the moon must go around too,” she said blithely. “Maybe there are people on the moon – looking down at us?.. They could be saying ‘How does that stay down there?’”

 

~~~~~

The full moon hung overhead, beaming brightly in the black night sky like a celestial pearl. Moonlight illuminated the sheltered coral beach at Pantai. The flowers let out a night-time fragrance and flushed opalescent as their petals reflected the aura of the luminescent moon above.

Raharjo and his sisters played a simple family game they often played. The boy started by running round and round his sisters as they held hands – then they tried to ‘catch’ him – by getting close enough to touch him. The rules were more complicated but that seemed the essence. Agung was initiated into the game as the rules were randomly changed; they could touch him anywhere or each other anywhere, but he, being a full grown man, could only touch them on the middle of their backs.

Such innocent fun had no sense of time. Laughter mixed with the night-time sounds of crickets, the quiet lapping of the waves and the occasional nocturnal calls of wildlife from the forests, while the wise gaze of the moon looked down upon it all. This night he felt secure in his feelings for the two girls, yet almost unbelieving that their feelings could possibly be the same for him. Anyway, how could he possibly go to Likupang in the company of these two beautiful creatures? What would everybody else think?

 

It was first light in the beautiful morning.

Resistance had been futile. The persuasive powers of Lyana and Lela were overwhelming. They were going to give him a haircut.

They sat him on a chair from the porch, and instructed him to stay still.

As always, he wore his kathok.

First his hair had to be washed. Hair and body were doused in fresh pond water, and then Lyana took the lead: lathering and washing. After rinsing, drying and combing came the cutting.

The adroit manipulation of sharpened seashells lopped off long locks of black hair, while Agung patiently watched the circling felicitous hairdressers. He watched them from close quarters at multiple angles, sometimes through nearly closed eyelids as they trimmed his hair from over his face. He smiled back at their reassuring smiles, marvelling at the quickness and certainty of their movement. They touched him but he did not touch them. He breathed in and absorbed their scent and their closeness. With final touches to the soft stubble of his beard they pronounced the grooming complete.

“There’s one more thing,” said Lyana with a mischievous grin, and then gave him a bundle of cloth.

~~~~~

 

In the bright light of the early morning, Bandri stared ahead at the translucent green water, deep in thought. Even now he worried whether the the tribe had made the right decision? He questioned his own part in the whole debate. Had he himself been a blind fool?

At least his leg was feeling much better – the swelling had almost completely gone down. The exercise of paddling warmed his arms and quickened his heart, pushing the blood around the extremities of his body. He felt grateful to be alive, wanting now only the safety of his loved ones.

 

~~~~~

 

His ears felt somehow exposed. The last time Agung had short hair was when he was a child. But now his heart was full of love for the girls who had deprived him of the straggling hair that protected him from the staring sun, and which he often hid behind if he didn’t want to get involved in the long discussions at Likupang.

Agung felt that the Javanese kain seemed so fiddly compared to his comfortable old kathok. He would never have managed to get it right if it hadn’t been for Raharjo’s dedicated help.

Absorbed in the ripeness of the moment, he collected dry coconut stalks for the cooking fire, while Lyana harvested mung beans in the cultivated plot behind the house. Lela and Listeri were in the house looking after Eko.

Screams came from behind the house! Screams from a girl!

Dropping the stalks he started running. Afraid now for Lyana, he ran in the direction of the screams. Rounding the corner of the house, Lyana ran into him – with two men chasing her!

The men stopped short when they saw him, about five paces away.

In half a heartbeat, Agung’s hand went to the handle of his machete. The men glanced at each other in the split moment of indecision as all three sized up the situation. For a sharp moment as time slowed down, Agung saw the coldness in their eyes, the arrogant black bearded face and the stubbled face with thick eyebrows. They were muscular and hairy chested. One held a spear and they both had large bows over their shoulders. Wearing kains, they both had knives in scabbards at their waists.

Their hands went to their knives and yanked them out – curved and glinting in the sun.

Agung’s right hand pulled out the great gleaming machete.

Even in this miniscule moment, still he struggled to believe that everything had been bliss and now everything was under attack – by these savages! They are savages! Now he wanted to dismember these savages, to hack through flesh and bone! He would break their necks and spill their guts! He growled his anger, staring directly at them, swiping the machete in front of him, letting them know – ready for the onslaught.

Both men froze.

Tetep ana!” – “Stay there!” in Javanese.

Eko’s deep voice called from the house and through a partly opened shutter the front part of a bow loaded with an arrow poked out. And behind Agung, Lyana had taken hold of the spear that Eko kept in the alcove of their house.

The men stayed there.

Sijine mudhun senjata!” – “Put down your weapons!” commanded Eko.

The older, taller one with a thick black beard did not move, still staring at Agung. The younger man with black stubble dropped his spear on the ground. After a further reluctant pause, they both pushed their knives back into the scabbards.

Kita nedya ora gawe piala.” – “We mean no harm,” the man with the beard proclaimed coldy, in a dense Javanese dialect.

Agung made a gutteral sound of disgust.

Banjur apa kowe nyerang kita?!” – “Then why do you attack us?!” rejoined Eko before Agung found words to respond.

Kowe saka ngendi?!” – “Where are you from?!” demanded the bearded man, ignoring the question.

Saka kene – nanging sampeyan ora.” – “From here – but you are not,” stated Eko, and then added the question “Kowe saka ngendi?” – “Where are you from?”

Bitung – lan saka kene.” – “Bitung – and from here,” came the reply. To Agung it sounded like a threat and he growled in answer, moving the machete menacingly.

At that juncture, the bearded man stepped back a couple of paces, followed by the stubbled man, who left his spear. The bearded one glowered at Agung and spat on the ground, before turning to stride quickly towards the trees together with the stubbled one, who glanced behind as if to check that they weren’t being followed.

Agung watched their retreat wordlessly. Before they disappeared from view, he saw the shadow of another man joining the two tribesmen in the forest.

Lyana clung to him and looked up gratefully at her saviour. Instinctively, he put an arm around her and kissed her on the forehead. He was still pumped up – thinking about the men and what should be done next.

 

Raharjo appeared, running from the direction of the pond. Listeri turned to him, saying:

“I’m so glad to see you son – I didn’t know where you were..Two men just tried to attack us here, but Agung stopped them.”

“If Eko had not spoken to them they could have attacked,” Agung said, pointing to the forest. “They have gone away into the trees.”

“I saw three men just now walking towards Likupang – was it the same men?”

“Did you see their faces?”

“No – only their backs – one was tall – he was carrying a big bow, and a knife. Another one was well-built with a bow and knife. And I think one was an older boy – he had a small bow, and a knife.. I followed them until I thought they weren’t coming back here.”

“Likupang must be told that these men are coming,” said Agung with grim determination as he thought about his family there, and tried to weigh up the danger of leaving the family here.

“Let me go!” Raharjo said with conviction. “I can get to Likupang and tell them.”

 

Raharjo was clambering into his boat when he saw another boat approaching the small beach at Pantai.

“Bandri is coming!” he shouted, running back to the house.

As Agung helped his friend land the boat, Bandri exclaimed:

“Great outfit!. What happened to your hair?!”

“Java from Bitung tried to take Lyana!” stormed Agung. “They’re on their way to Likupang!”

“We all need to get back!” Bandri responded almost at once.

“But?!”

“I came to tell you – they’ve agreed the family can join.”

Agung nodded with his mouth open.

“There’s only two boats,” he said after a moment. “We can’t leave the girls here.”

“I’ll take Lela in this boat – you take Lyana in the other boat.”

Raharjo had been listening.

“I can stay here with mother and father.”

“Are you sure?” asked Bandri. “We’ll come back as soon as we can.”

“I’m sure.”

As they ran back up to the house to put the plan into action Agung gave his friend more details of what had happened.

“When did you get your hair cut?” asked Bandri.

“First thing this morning – why?”

“We don’t want the Bahoi tribesmen to see the family joining Likupang.. We have to disguise you and the girls – quickly!”

 

~~~~~

 

Harta was fed up and bored, thinking that as usual his brothers had made him lookout. Today, he had been reminded that he needed to look out for Bandri’s return by boat, since he was to come back with one or two passengers, maybe at mid-day. All he had to relieve the boredom was to listen out for the whistle from the village. The men had decided that, occasionally one of them would blow a single whistle note, and the lookout needed to respond with a whistle, or with a flash of sunlight reflected off a polished bronze knife blade.

He looked down with pride at the knife he had been entrusted with, turning it over in his hand, forgetting his duty for a while. He needed to move between a few places so that he could see down the most likely land approaches, and also out to sea. If the lookout needed to alert the village then there were several agreed whistle signals. He wished he could whistle as loud and clearly as Praba, who didn’t even need to put his fingers in his mouth.

Finally he looked up, and saw the two boats in the middle distance. He couldn’t make out who was in the boats. All four people wore fisherman’s hats and they were all paddling hard.

He trembled. He must make the whistle signal – one long whistle and four short whistles. He put his fingers in his lips but his mouth had gone dry. Licking his lips, he tried again – some sound came out, but just not loud enough.

The boats were drawing closer, rapidly. It looked like there were four men in the boats; two of them were dressed in loose-fitting fishermen’s garb. He didn’t know who these men were – they could be attacking the village! Harta gave up on the whistling, and ran at top speed down the hill, waded as quickly as he could across the river at the shallow fording point, and alerted the village.

 

As the boats drew nearer to the beach Praba and the others could see it was Bandri and Agung plus two others – Lyana and Lela. When they hit the beach Bandri called out:

“Quick get them into a house – and Agung into a house!”

“Why – what’s wrong?”

“Three men from Bitung are coming here soon – we need to be ready.”

Breathing hard after the paddling, Bandri got out of the boat, briefly telling Harta and the other men what had happened at Pantai. The brothers wanted to see if Rukma could identify the tall bearded man as the same one he and their father had met in the boats last dry season.

If the men were heading to Bahoi the main path would take them past Likupang – unless they deliberately chose to avoid the village. Carrying bows and quivers of arrows, Bandri and Rukma selected positions to hide and wait. Rukma positioned himself behind the wide trunk of the old acacia, while Bandri scaled the grand old tree using the toeholds in its hard bark that he had carved out years ago. From his position, Bandri could see further along the paths; he could also he could see any signal from Harta, and also Praba in the village.

They didn’t have long to wait.

Bandri spied three men in the distance on the sandy coastal path. The three stopped someway short of their village, talked for a while, and then took an alternative smaller path that could take them around the village. Bandri and Rukma jogged back to Praba to inform him that they were going to try and get closer to the three men on the other path, by working their way into the forest nearby, which they knew well.

The three tribesmen walked quietly and quickly along the forest path. Hidden from view, Bandri and Rukma studied them as they passed close by their position in the undergrowth. The three continued in the direction of Bahoi.

 

~~~~~

 

Bandri and Ayu’s house was close to the beach. From the porch Melati and Ayu had seen the two boats arriving. They had watched as Praba met the boats, and they had heard Bandri shouting:

“Quick get them into a house – and Agung into a house!”

Ayu had beckoned them to come to her. The two strangers had run up the beach onto the porch next to Melati and then had immediately been shown straight into the house. So these were the girls! That was it, there had been no introductions.

Melati looked up at the panting animated Agung in the porch as he took off his hat, showing his short hair. She had dreaded seeing him with the two girls she had heard about, and now she was scared by the sudden events unfolding in front of her. She listened as Agung explained to Ayu about some men who were coming, and then he told them to go in the house while he stayed hidden on the porch outside.

Melati stood still on the porch, trembling and frightened. She felt Ayu’s generous whispered hug:

“Don’t worry.. I think you’ll like them.”

Melati looked up seeing such calm reassurance in those dark brown, knowing eyes. Then, Ayu closed her eyelids and gently pushed her forehead against her own for a moment. The gesture seemed to share her anxiety, saying more than words ever could. Only then did she feel strong enough to go inside and meet the new girls.

 

~~~~~

 

That afternoon Bandri and Harta paddled two boats to Pantai.

They lifted Eko into one boat, along with as many household items from their house as could be managed, leaving just enough room for Bandri at the stern. Harta, Raharjo and Listeri squeezed into the other boat with further personal items, plus Asu and Anjing.

Eko’s family had said goodbye to their old home.

 

Most of the village had crowded into Bandri’s house where Eko’s family were being sheltered. The guests quietly grouped together, still rather unsure about speaking out loud in this new situation, Listeri sat on the bed beside her stretched out husband. Meanwhile, Bandri tried to explain once again to everyone why Agung needed to be hidden.

“Bahoi think he has long hair – from a distance that’s how you can recognise Agung – and they didn’t see his back. Those men didn’t know it was Agung – they’re going to tell all that to Bahoi.. If they see him with short hair here, and there’s no one at Pantai they’ll know that the family has joined us.. Also, they only saw Lyana, and they heard Eko’s voice but didn’t see him.”

Bandri looked at his older brother who appeared intent on demonstrating his seniority, especially in front of the new family.

“What about the kathok?!” Praba probed assertively.

Bandri raised his eyebrows as he glanced at the uncomfortable Agung.

“He wasn’t wearing a kathok,” said Lyana in Malay, who had evidently been able to understand enough of the dialect to follow the debate.

Coughs and mutterings started up. Praba had been stunned into temporary silence.

“He was wearing a kain,” Lyana said frankly. As the mutterings gave way to murmurings, she added: “His kathok needed washing.”

“But!” said Harta, still baffled. “If they saw him with long hair at Pantai, would we still have to hide him?”

“We can’t hide Agung!” said Praba fatuously.

Agung stood beside Bandri who heard him draw in a deep breath.

“Right now they don’t know about Agung,” Bandri intervened quickly. “And we need to stop them knowing.”

“How?!” grunted Agung.

Ayu reached up to run a gentle hand through her brother’s short hair.

“Agu could wear some hair,” she said lightly. “The women can give him some!”

Apa?!” – “What?!” coughed Agung.

“That’s not a bad idea my friend,” smiled Bandri, trying to introduce the notion gently. “Just for a while around the village – until we think of a better idea.”

“Lela and I could cut out hair shorter, and Agung could have long hair,” offered Lyana promptly, who was looking at her younger sister for a sign of confirmation. “And then we could wear kathoks and fisherman tops to make us look more like men,” added Lyana airily, smiling broadly at Agung and putting her arm around Lela, before glancing down at her parents who were talking quietly together.

“Thank you for offering to help,” Praba said, smiling at the sisters. Bandri drew in a breath but said nothing as he noticed the change of tone his older brother used when addressing the girls.

“Lyana and Lela must stay inside until we have a better plan,” stated Rukma. “Now we need to decide where Eko and his family are going to live.”

“They live in my house,” said Agung with a determined tone. “And I stay in the shed.”

 

In the evening, the men thrashed out their feelings at the gathering under cover of the beach shelter, where a fire burned alongside. Eko however stayed in Agung’s house, and Agung wore a fisherman’s hat.

“I’m sure that was the same man,” Rukma said again.

“So it looks like he’s gone to Bitung,” said Praba, shaking his head angrily. “And you say that there are tribes down there that always get women by just taking them like that.”

“I don’t know if they always do that,” said Bandri attempting to maintain a reasonable discussion. “But people from Bitung say it happens a lot down there – so if his tribe is like that – that’s what they could try and do here.”

“The girl in Bitung was taken by four men!” Agung told them emotionally. “These people don’t care about anybody else – they’re animals – like pigs!”

“They behave like dogs!” said Praba in disgust, as if competing with Agung to insult the Javanese tribesmen. “Just because they want sex they do anything they can to have sex with anyone they can take it from – they breed like stray dogs!”

“They tried to take Lyana!” Agung gushed with anger, flinging off the hat. “If they saw Lela they would have taken her.. He was arrogant – ignorant! – a pig! – Worse!” The other men had never seen the big man quite like this before. As he stood Agung pulled out the machete, the gleam of which they could see in the yellow glow from the fire. Agung made ferocious sweeping actions in the air as he spoke. “I can see his face now.. If they had gone at me – what I would do! – Worse than pigs!”

The seething rage in his voice was clear to the others, who all shared his emotion. Bandri was thankful that it was probably too dark now for any observers to see his friend’s haircut. Apart from a rubbing of foreheads and a wringing of hands, nobody moved or said anything for a while. In the background the fire crackled and snapped. Agung finally sat down again and pushed the machete back in its sheath.

“We all need machetes to scare the dogs away,” Praba said with a venomous scowl as he stared with envy at the machete. It was far more impressive than a long knife.

Rukma had been listening and watching carefully, as the younger men blew off steam.

“We need to calm down and think clearly,” he tried to persuade them. “We do not want to start a war with Bahoi. If that happened people in Likupang would suffer. People here would die – even children. They would try to kill all the men and boys – maybe the women too.”

Rukma’s solemn words had wisedom, and the anger seemed to subside.

“It’s very bad,” Bandri finally said quietly. “But there are some things that might help.. When I was bringing Eko back in the boat he was telling me more about what happened at Pantai when the men attacked.”

The others listened.

“Listeri, Lela and Eko were in the house when they heard Lyana’s screams. Eko couldn’t get up but he could see the men. It was Listeri who was holding the bow.”

“That was a big bow – and the arrow was pulled far back?” Agung said in surprise.

“That’s what I mean,” explained Bandri. “Eko told me that when they were younger Listeri used to hunt with him – she’s very good with the bow – and she’s stronger than she looks.. And there’s something else.”

The others listened more carefully.

“They’ve needed to look after themselves at Pantai – Eko and Listeri have taught their children to use bows too – he says they’re all good at it.”

“Lela and Lyana were good at paddling,” added Agung.

“They’re stronger than they look,” Bandri went on.. “Harta – what were Listeri and Raharjo like at paddling?”

“Alright – they were good,” admitted Harta, shrugging nonchalantly.

“They looked very good at it to me,” Bandri said. “They’re not helpless you understand.. When the sisters said they will cut their hair off and wear clothes to make themselves look like boys from a distance – I think they were serious.”

“How are they going to look like boys!” scoffed Praba. “Look at them? Boys don’t walk like they do! Boys fight on the beach!”

Bandri knew his brother was right, but somehow there must be a way.

“They can’t stay inside for ever. They wore fisherman’s tops and fooled Harta.”

Harta pulled a face as if to object.

“What about Agung’s hair?” said Praba pointedly.

“Alright it’s dark now and they can’t see his short hair – but what about tomorrow?.. Do we want them to know what has happened so early?”

“Bandy’s got a point,” said Andhika.

Bandri watched Agung take out the machete again and tried to steer the subject away from his hairstyle, saying instead:

“ It’s difficult to believe that everybody in Bahoi is that bad -”

“Brother,” declared Praba, cutting in. “Sometimes you think this world is too good a place! You think that tribesmen like that have good sides to them?.. They don’t deserve to be in this world! When they die they don’t deserve to be in the next world!”

“We’re all angry – but if we war with them we’ll suffer – and so will our families,” Bandri reminded his older brother, while trying to hold on to his own feelings. “I’m just saying that if there were any in the Bahoi tribe that were not like that – we could try and work with them somehow.”

“But how could we find out?” Andhika groaned, as Praba buried his face in his hands.

“I was wondering why that third young man didn’t try and get Lyana?” pondered Bandri out loud. Exhausted with the topic, the others let him talk. “If they all saw this girl on her own – maybe they talked about what they were going to do.. But he didn’t join in – maybe he decided not to take the girl.. Maybe he had just been brought into the tribe?”

“Alright, I’ve heard enough,” said Rukma emphatically. “If they’re bringing in new men, let’s see if the sisters are serious about being boys.”

 

[] [] *8* Trust and Distrust

The almost silent swish of an arrow – then the slicing thud as it burrowed itself deep in the coconut packing.

“That’s good!” Praba muttered.

“That’s Bandy,” Harta said.

Another arrow flew out from Agung’s covered work shed. The archer was hidden from view. This arrow was much less forceful and clipped the edge of the target.

Several more arrows followed, with a wide variety of results. Two were almost as accurate as the first, although less powerful. Two others just went the distance but were off target. One smaller arrow hit the target dead centre, another nearly centre, while another small arrow didn’t make it very far and was way off target.

The target was strung up on a pole at the top of the beach. It was about chest height and thirty paces from the shed. Praba and Harta were watching safely from the beach shelter off to one side.

Bandri walked out of the shed and across to the beach shelter. As he did so more arrows flew out, some less accurate than others. He smiled at his two brothers.

“What do you think?”

“Who shot the first one?” asked Praba.

“Listeri.”

Bandri grinned as another arrow plunged forcefully into the centre of the target.

“Stay there!” he told them, jogging back into the work shed. A short while later he returned to the beach shelter followed by Ayu, Melati and Sukma.

“Ready!”

In rapid succession two large arrows and two smaller arrows were launched; all of them hit the target. Two were dead centre and the others fairly close, one of the big arrows again with considerable force.

They all looked at each other, grinning in wonderment.

“Listeri has offered to tutor the women – if that helps?” said Ayu. She smiled sweetly at Praba. “The men could have more time to work on the boat and go fishing if the women can help look after the village.”

“We want to learn too!” gushed Sukma. “Can Lyana and Lela teach us?”

Bandri looked at Praba and raised his eyebrows as if asking a question.

“It’s just for a while,” said Bandri. “Until we have a better plan?”

He sat quietly, unconvinced. The idea of having wearing a wig everytime he was outside was difficult to stomach. Apart from the annoyance, everyone else would think he was stupid.

Just then Ayu, Melati, Sukma, Lyana and Lela came giggling into the room from their target practise in the adjoining work shed.

“It’s a great idea, Agu,” Ayu enthused as she stroked the back of his head. “It will be fun – like dressing up when we were kids.”

“Melati and me are going to help Ayu,” chirped Sukma, excitedly dancing around her big brother, while Melati chuckled.

Lyana grinned as she lifted up her sister’s luxuriant hair showing him there was plenty for a wig. Lela smiled her smile at him. His world had become rich with love and attention. They all wanted him to wear a wig.

“You wanted to take my hair off,” he complained with a wry smile, struggling to retain his dignity as he felt his heart melting away. “And now you want to put it back on!”

“And they can be boys!” Ayu told him, adding “What do you think?” as she rolled up Lyana’s hair.

The three of them posed in front of him.

“What can I think?” he replied, willing to do whatever they wanted.

 

Melati had enjoyed her bow practise with the Javanese sisters and felt more confident in their presence. Lyana was fun, although scarily forthright and evidently keen on Agung. Melati felt she had more in common with Lela who was quieter.

Ayu, Sukma and Melati nimbly took each long strand of Lyana’s black shiny hair and sewed one end into a fabric cap which was made to fit Agung’s head. There were frequent visitors to Bandri and Ayu’s porch where the wig gradually took shape.

“It’s going to look too neat,” Harta grumbled. “They’ll think he’s a woman!”

“Don’t let Agung hear you say that!” advised Andhika.

“It has to be neat when we’re making it Hatty!” Sukma said, goading Harta, offering him the tiny needle made from a fish rib and what appeared to be a strand of hair held between her forefinger and thumb. “You couldn’t do it?!”

Harta took the needle and tried to take the strand of hair, grasping hopelessly at thin air.

“Huh!?” uttered the baffled youth who had fallen into the trap.

Sukma sniggered “Silly Hatty” and then Andhika burst into laughter, slapping Harta hard on the back.

For the first time since the new girls had arrived, Melati smiled and then chuckled.

 

One side of the work shed had no wall; the large covered area had served Agung as a multi-purpose smelting and carpenter’s space, porch, kitchen and now even a bedroom. Agung’s house had two sizable rooms and the attached work shed, from which was the entrance door to the first room. Each room had a door into the tandas or ‘privacy’ room at the back. Between the two living rooms he had never bothered installing a door into the doorframe. This arrangement had been fine for him, but it was less than ideal now.

Eko and Listeri had been hosted in the room furthest away from the entrance, while Lyana and Lela were to live in the first room. Agung had taken up residence in the work shed, where Raharjo also had a bunk bed. So far neither Agung nor the girls had left the house in daylight, in case they were seen by any of the Bahoi tribesmen.

This day, Agung occupied himself with making and fixing a door between the two rooms so that the parents and the daughters had a little more comfort, but also still allowed the daughters to easily help Listeri look after Eko, who was confined to lying on a bed.

Eko studied the young man hard at work making the new door between the two rooms, until he beckoned Agung to come over and sit beside him on the chair next to his bed.

“Agung – you are a thoughtful man.. Listeri and I want to thank you and your family for all you are doing for us.”

“It’s good to have you here with us, sir.”

“Your father is a good and wise man Agung – we have talked much,” Eko informed him. “He speaks Javanese well and understands much – and your mother is good and thoughtful.”

“Thank you sir.. It’s good that our families are together.”

“Listeri tells me you are sleeping in your work shed?”

“That’s good for me – we can make another house soon.”

“I hear you are making another sacrifice,” Eko said with a smile. “They are asking you to wear a wig – but I understand why.. It’s a clever idea. Also my daughters can be safer if the tribesmen from Bitung do not see them as girls.”

“Yes sir.”

“Lyana’s hair will grow again,” Eko mused as Lyana walked through the new doorway into the room. “What do you think of her hair now?”

Lyana’s hair was now much shorter – similar to the length and style of Harta’s. It revealed her shapely neck. Eko watched the young man closely.

Agung looked up at her, meeting her eyes which caused a spontaneous reaction in him. Even with her short hair, he was very aware of her sexuality and how attractive he found her. He could not find the words to answer her father, and for a few moments became a shy man again. Eko had his answer.

Lela still had her rampant long hair. She came into the room soon after her older sister. Agung automatically looked up at her, and Lela instantly smiled at him. Her smile Agung had discovered was different to that of her older sister. Lela’s feminine smile was more modest, as was she, and in some ways he found her even more lovely. He wanted to keep looking at her but remembered not to. Instead he looked uncomfortably again at her father, who was watching him with amusement.

Eko spoke to his daughters, allowing Agung to regain his composure.

“Lyana, I think you need something to hide your neck.”

“Yes father, we are working on a fisherman’s top to try and give it a higher neck – and Bandri has found a kathok that fits me.”

The girls seemed to find whatever they had come into the room for, and went back through the doorway into the other room.

“I have not really thanked you for saving Lyana.” Eko put his hand up to stop Agung’s interruption.. “Yes – Listeri’s bow helped – but without you she would have been taken away, and maybe Lela too.. I can see that you are committed to my daughters.”

He waited as Agung nodded solemnly, then Eko quietly and deliberately asked:

“Do you want both my daughters?”

Eko’s clear specific question took Agung by surprise, and made his mind race. He knew it was the most important question he had ever been asked. He felt his heart beating as he tried hard to give an answer – an answer that was worthy of the question.

“Sir – I believe they should decide if they want me.”

“I respect that answer Agung, and you are right – If I live they will decide.” Eko’s statement was worded precisely, especially the last phrase. Then he explained his question.

“I hope my daughters can decide who they want to marry, but we know that is not the way the world works. I need to know how you feel.. If you cannot tell me yet, I will understand – but I fear that my time in this world is not long, and I want to know if my daughters can be looked after well – if they can marry trustworthy men, who will love them and care for them – good men.” At this point Eko hesitated, and then added “Or a good man – but understand that this is only between you and me.”

Agung understood. Eko had used the Malay dialect carefully. Now Eko again asked in a calm voice:

“Can you tell me if you want both my daughters?”

Agung was trying to imagine a future without either Lyana or Lela, and he could not. He did not want to imagine them apart – he knew them only as part of each other. Admittedly he had kissed Lyana on her forehead for a fleeting moment, and touched them both in the middle of their backs! But he had never seen them without their sarongs or touched them intimately. Both of them he desired physically. But beyond all of this, their natures filled his heart with joy. He knew. He yearned for both of them in every way. He did want both of them, if they would have him, although he realised that this could be much too much to ask!

“Sir – if they want me.. yes, I want them.”

For a few moments Eko looked silently at the large muscular young man sitting obediently beside his bed.

“Thank you for your answer Agung – I just needed to know your feelings.. But this remains between us.”

 

~~~~~

 

Bandri and Harta were on look-out duty as most of the tribe crowded into the two rooms of Agung’s house. Both sisters now had short hair, and both were dressed in fishermen tops and kathoks. The transformation was striking, but not yet totally convincing.

“They still need to dust their legs and arms with mud or something,” commentated Eko.

Listeri looked disapprovingly at her husband.

“Something – but not mud – and something on their necks just here.”

Kusama tried to be encouraging:

“At a distance they will look much more like older boys now.”

Praba sucked his lip as he studied the outfits. He was not convinced.

“There is still something about the outline – they look too.. smooth..”

Puteri interrupted her husband.

“What he means is that..” she picked up some spare fabric and quickly folded it up.

“..maybe a little padding might help here ..” tucking it under the fabric on one of Lela’s shoulders. Joyah joined in: “..and maybe here.”

Lyana tousled her sister’s hair a little, saying airily:

“Is that more like a boy?”

Praba gazed at Lela, and she smiled modestly in his direction. His appreciation of her youthful beauty needed little stimulating, but her alluring coyness as she looked at him generated a powerful tingle of sexual excitement. When he first saw the sisters in Pantai, a bolt of awareness had flashed through him. Now they were living here in Likupang, a profound yearning was taking hold; Lela in particular he found intensely desirable. Forgetting himself, Praba blurted out:

“They’ll see her smile!”

Joyah and Puteri both turned towards him and glowered at his apparent insensitivity.

“Alright, alright,” Praba said amicably. “They just have to look and behave like boys do.”

“We will try our best,” said Lyana. “When we are outside we can use the bow and act like boys do.”

“My daughters understand this is important,” said Eko placidly. “We have been talking about this. Agung agrees that they should also be seen to do some wrestling on the beach. We asked Bandri if he will kindly show them some wrestling in the house first, and then he can pretend to wrestle with them on the beach.”

Agung stood at the back of the room, quietly observing the proceedings.

“They – they will have to be careful,” Praba faltered, trying his best to hide the feelings of surprise and jealousy that swept over him.

 

The chattering visitors had left Agung’s house now. Listeri stayed with her husband in their room, while the young women dressed as boys were in the next room, adjacent to the work shed. Raharjo had just gone off with Harta. Agung was about to walk out into his work shed, thinking that Lyana and Lela were now going to change their clothes.

“Agung,” Lyana said softly “You haven’t said anything about our outfits.. What do you think?”

He had been standing at the back of the room, feeling that he should not say anything, happy just to watch and keep his thoughts to himself. He turned back into the room to look at them both. Lyana stood there, gently smiling at him with her head on one side, while Lela waited quietly behind her with slightly raised eyebrows as if asking a question.

His heart skipped a beat – they wanted his opinion. How could he tell them what he really thought? To him they looked wonderful whatever they were wearing. Then he knew for certain – he had told Eko the truth. His mouth went dry. He swallowed and couldn’t help but give a little cough, as he struggled to find words.

“Are you alright?” Lyana asked with concern in her voice, but with eyes that smouldered as she stepped closer. She put a hand soothingly against his throat, looking confidently into his blinking eyes as his words stumbled:

“Yes.. yes, fine – thank you.”

“I want to thank you,” Lyana said with a soft dulcet tone, pausing as she moved her hand tenderly to the side of his neck. “For saving me from those men.”

Before he could utter a word in reply he found himself yielding to the slightest pressure from her fingers as she pulled his head down towards her. She planted a single kiss on his unsuspecting lips.

Just after the mesmerised man was released from the kiss, Lela kissed him delicately on his cheek while his head was still bent low.

“Thank you for looking after us,” she whispered close to his ear.

In his splendid stupor he managed to remember Lyana’s question:

“I like your outfits.. very much,” he stammered as he raised his head.

Not knowing what else to say, and blinking as if blinded by a bright light, he hesitantly backed through the door way, gently closing the door.

 

After the meeting in Agung’s house Melati and Sukma had gone to look after Musang in his cage. They sat quietly chatting to one another as Musang lay in Sukma’s lap.

“Sssh, look,” whispered Sukma. “My brother’s just come out – maybe he’s going to try on the wig.”

Through the small gaps in the cage wall they could see across to Agung’s work shed. If they kept still and talked very quietly, they knew he probably wouldn’t notice them spying on him. They watched as Agung simply stood looking at the door for some time, as if in a trance.

“He’s just standing there – doing nothing,” Melati whispered. “What’s wrong with him?”

“There you are – now he’s looking at the wig,” Sukma sniggered.

Agung still appeared to be thinking about the wig as he held it in his hands.

“He’s taking a long time – go on, put it on!” urged Sukma with whispers of pent-up anticipation.

At last, he looked quickly about to check that he was alone, and then put it on.

Melati and Sukma desperately stifled their joyous giggles.

He appeared to get it on back to front at first. Pushing it about and stroking the hair down around his face it began to look convincing. Evidently still uncertain, he pulled out the gleaming machete and tried to peer at himself in its partial reflection.

The two girls now had tears of laughter rolling down their cheeks, but were forced to clamp their hands over their mouths, fearing that he would hear them. At length he ventured out into the open, walking slowly, head held upright, right past Musang’s cage down towards the other men working on the half-finished boat.

 

~~~~~

 

Raharjo had stayed close by his parents and sisters for the first couple of days in Likupang, but he was keen to get out of the house and look around the village. Having spent so much time in the company of his family in Pantai, it was exciting to be in a new extended family at Likupang. The boy closest to his own age was Harta.

Before they had gone in the boats to collect the three members of Eko’s family, Bandri had taken great pains to explain to Harta that they were good people, even though they had Javanese dialects. Harta had regarded Raharjo with suspicion at first, but now realised that he had a new friend who was eager to learn all he had to tell, even though the different dialects meant they sometimes misunderstood each other.

The two of them had paced quickly around the village as Harta gave a detailed guided tour. Now they were skipping stones out to sea in friendly competition. Harta explained about how he was often told to be lookout on the hill.

“They often tell me to do things like that – I get told to do a lot of things – but I want to decide for myself what I want to do.”

“My father tells me what to do – but I always ask him if I can do things,” said Raharjo.

“Does your father let you do things on your own?”

“Lots of things – like fishing, and hunting with my bow.”

“My brothers won’t let me do stuff like that on my own.”

“But I want to ask father first – he tells me what I can do.”

Harta said nothing, and skipped stones with more force.

“I ask my mother and my sisters too,” said Raharjo earnestly.

“My brothers think they know everything,” complained Harta. “But they don’t.”

Raharjo was quiet and thoughtful for a few moments, and then said:

“Bandri knows a lot.”

Harta shrugged:

“Bandy thinks he knows everything.”

“Bandri doesn’t know everything – but he knows a lot,” said Raharjo with conviction.

“Praba thinks he knows everything.. Agung thinks he knows everything. ”

“Agung doesn’t know everything – but he knows a lot.”

“They think they know everything.. They should ask me – I know a lot more than they think!”

“But they ask all the time!” the younger boy insisted.

“How can you say that?!” retorted Harta, getting annoyed at the new boy who thought he knew the other men in the village better than him. He turned his back on Raharjo and concentrated on skipping stones.

Raharjo realised he had just upset his new friend, and fell quiet for some moments. Then he tried to explain:

“ When I came to Likupang I asked my father if I could walk around and learn about the village – and he told me that he thought it was alright, but I should ask Agung -”

Harta carried on skipping stones.

“ - I asked Agung and he said that he wasn’t sure, and I should ask Bandri.. then when Bandri came into the house I asked him.. and Bandri said it was fine with him, but first he should ask Praba -”

Harta stopped skipping stones. Perplexed, he listened to Raharjo as he continued to voice his meandering explanation:

“- After Bandri had asked Praba he told me that it was alright, but first I should ask my father.. I said I had.. so Bandri said that it was fine.. but then he said the best person to ask about the village was you.”

 

All of Likupang still mourned Wayan, especially after the manner of his death. Harta in particular could never forget or forgive what had happened. Every single day he thought about his beloved father and the cowardly pig that had cold-bloodedly murdered him. His brothers had told him that they couldn’t prove that the tall bearded man had killed their father, but still Harta yearned for vengeance. His brothers had explained to him many times of the dangers of trying to kill the Bahoi man, but that didn’t stop him wanting revenge.

The new boy from Pantai had lifted his spirits, and he had almost forgotten now that Raharjo used to be Java. He thought the grown up girls from Pantai were astonishing. He was a red-blooded youth and they were exciting. He thought about both Java sisters a lot, especially Lela. But they were with Agung – Harta understood that.

Apart from Lela, he thought there were just no suitable girls in his small village. Sukma was too young and too silly – besides she was always with his sister Melati. He was one of the men now but they still poked fun at him. Suk and Mel were irksome.

Harta enjoyed the adventure of spying on the Bahoi village. When he was watching their village for all that time he looked frequently at one of the girls. She had been mending a fishing net in the shade of a tree. Sometimes the girl would get up from her crouched position and walk into the bottom floor of one of the tall houses to get something, then come out a little later and go back to her task. When her long hair fell down onto her face she flicked it idly away with her fingers, sometimes pushing the offending locks back behind an ear. She wore a simple sarong, frayed at the hems, which flapped in the gusts of wind blowing in from the bay. It was difficult to tell, but she looked a about the same age as Melati.

Harta liked the way this strange girl walked and moved, attractive in some mysterious, unobtainable way. He knew nothing more about her, but remembered her vividly. He found himself feeling afraid for her. What was her life like in a place like Bahoi? He wondered what she would be like if he met her. Perhaps she wouldn’t trust him or speak to him, or perhaps she might? He couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. He wondered if there was a way to get close enough to the Bahoi village on his own. He wanted to see her again.

 

Rukma had noticed that young Harta needed more challenge and so he and Andhika coached him in some more strenuous activities. One of these was dealing with any venomous snakes in the vicinity of the village such as cobras, vipers and banded kraits.

“We use the forked sticks to help clear the bushes,” explained Rukma. “So if you get a snake on the ground you can pin it down behind the head.”

“If it’s in the bush or under a rock – don’t try and touch it,” warned Andhika, as he concentrating hard on the task in hand. “It can twist and strike you – better to get it on the ground – where you have more control – even Bandy didn’t want to be bitten!”

“We could just kill the snake when its pinned down,” explained Rukma as Andhika finally succeeded in catching the hissing, coiling, well-camouflaged reddish-brown pit viper.

“What’s the best way to kill it!?” asked Harta, excited at the prospect.

“If you’ve got the machete – then chop its head off!” grinned the perspiring Andhika, standing up while he held the stick in place.

“Or whack it with something!?”

“Be careful, young man,” Rukma intervened with a serious tone. “Treat them with respect and you’ll live to catch another one – if you’ve got the right stick you can break its neck without going near it.. But before killing – we’re just going to try and milk it.”

Into Andhika’s open hand, Rukma put the long handle of the venom pot, which was a small bamboo container with some raw bush turkey skin stretched over the top. Andhika tapped the pot gently near the pointed upturned snout of the angry snake.

“He’s trying to get the snake to bite the skin,” commented Rukma. “There – look what’s happening as it’s chewing at the skin – a big snake like this has a lot of poison.”

“The black cobra spits poison at you!” declared Harta, keen to demonstrate his knowledge.

“It’s more difficult to catch than this one – don’t try it,” answered Andhika. After a short while, he added: “I think this beauty has given us quite a bit.”

Andhika handed the venom pot back to Rukma, who exchanged it for Agung’s machete. With a swift deliberate blow Andhika decapitated the viper, whose patterned body kept moving even as he picked it up and handed the length over to his student.

“Watch!”

Andhika nudged the head on the ground with the machete and the mouth opened wide, briefly showing its two long, backwards-curved fangs with drops of yellow poison, before snapping shut again. Standing up straight, he passed the machete to Harta, saying:

“Now, let’s see what other snakes we can find.”

 

~~~~~

 

A couple of days had passed since the garment fitting, and by now the fisherman’s tops had been improved. Lyana asked Agung to come into their room from his work shed, where he had been cutting some new timber. Only Lyana was in the room, since Lela was tending her father in the adjoining bedroom.

“What do you think of our tops now?” Lyana asked airily, turning around in front of him so that he could inspect the modifications.

There was definitely some improvement in the design which somehow disguised the female form underneath, although he was not sure what had been done to create this effect. He smiled at her and shook his head.

“I have no idea.”

She smiled innocently at him, yet her eyes gleamed.

“Do you want to know the secret?”

Pulling undone a slip knot, she slipped off the top completely in front of his surprised eyes to reveal that she had material bound around her breasts in the form of an undergarment. The material was not tightly bound, but covered and held her well formed breasts sufficiently to disguise them when the padded top was worn.

Gazing at the delicious outline in front of him, his eyes ran over her skin. Her shapely bare shoulders and arms were exposed. His eyes lingered on the gloriously smooth midriff with the tantalising sight of an immaculate navel. A prolonged pulse of excitement transmitted itself through his body.

Lyana waited, smiling at him. The smouldering ether had been ignited. Looking up to meet her eyes, he reached out his hands and pulled her to him, kissing her, a spontaneous act of love and lust, a long, passionate, fumbling kiss. It was the third time they had kissed, but the first one in which he knew what was happening.

The sound of the door opening caused them to spring apart. Lela entered. Of course, she saw that something had happened and turned to go back out, but Lyana rushed to her sister and caught her gently by the arm.

“Sis, please wait.. I was just showing Agung our secret – how we look like boys now.”

Lyana giggled nervously, seeming to be afraid of Lela’s reaction. Lela stayed and closed the door between the rooms, but kept her back turned to him as the two sisters talked quietly – too quietly for him to hear.

Agung’s heart sank. He loved them both, and now he seemed to have hurt them both. Crestfallen, he sensed now a conflict between them – the first he had seen. He stood there, distressed. He thought about leaving the room but hesitated, not wanting to abandon either of them or seeming to be rude.

“ Sorry.. it was my -” he started to say, when Lyana interrupted him:

“It’s alright Agung.. It was me – Lela understands.. Don’t you Lela?”

Lela smiled weakly as Lyana went on with renewed enthusiasm:

“See – Lela has the same top!”

As if in fun, Lyana pulled the corner of her sister’s garment off her shoulder, showing part of the undergarment, her feminine bare shoulder and slender upper arm. Lela seemed to consent to the display, before modestly pulling back her top. For a brief moment Lela’s eyes looked into his spirit before she turned her back on him, casting him adrift.

He forced an awkward smile, and stumbled out some words:

“I like your tops.. yes ..it’s a good idea.”

As he left through the door into his work shed, Lyana held his arm and puckered her lips towards him, blowing a kiss. Her eyes reassured him that he had her affection.

 

“You can’t leave him alone – can you?!” Lela told her sister after she had closed the door.

“Sis.. It’s alright – he wants me too,” hushed Lyana, trying to sooth her sister. “You know how I feel about him.. Especially after he saved me.. And you like him too, don’t you?”

Lela was not so easily pacified.

“Not like you do – ever since we met him you’ve talked about nothing else! You were the one that wanted to talk to him at the pond – you are always so forward!” declared Lela, emotion showing in her tear-filled eyes. “If he wants you then let him show it – you shouldn’t be so obvious!”

Lyana tried to deny her actions, almost whimpering now:

“I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were! – taking off your top like that!”

“I didn’t mean to – really.”

“Yes, you were! – you know exactly what you did!”

“Alright.. I’m sorry Sis,” Lyana hugged her younger sister in remorse. “He’s shy still.. I just wanted to let him know it’s alright – it’s safe here – I trust him. Nobody else saw.”

“Mother could have come in,” Lela said, tears running down her cheeks.

“She’s showing the women how to use the bow on the beach.”

Lela sighed, wiping away the tears with her fingers.

“Ly, you will always be my big sister.” she said, returning the hug. “You know, don’t you?”

“Know what Sis?”

“If you want Agung, then you should have him.. Don’t worry about me – I’m not sure I want to get married anyway.”

“Sis.. but I do worry about you – I always will. I never want to be away from you,” urged Lyana hugging her sister tighter. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Lela mumbled. “We will always be together won’t we?”

The two sobbed in each other’s arms.

After some time, Lyana said:

“Likupang is a good place, don’t you think?”

“They’ve been very kind to us – and mother and father.. Raj is happy too.”

“As long as we’re both in the same village – it would be alright do you think – I mean if I did marry him? – as long as you are near?”

Lela said nothing for some moments.

“Yes,” she said quietly.

Lyana understood that her younger sister also had a special place for Agung in her heart.

“Oh Sis, I’m sorry – it’s just me being selfish.. I was trying to think if there was someone in the village you liked – a man?”

“I don’t have to be with a man!” Lela said in annoyance.

“You like Bandri don’t you?” teased Lyana.

“Don’t be silly Ly – look at Ayu – he’s not interested – he’s married!” Lela said, shaking her head. Then she changed the tone of her voice “And don’t tell me I like Praba again!”

Lyana blurted into a giggle. Lela smiled, and then they giggled as if in a conspiracy.

“How about Harta?” Lyana asked.

“He’s quite good-looking I suppose,” Lela mused out loud. “But maybe a bit too young!”

“You’re not going to be able to teach him anything!” Lyana teased.

“You don’t know anything either!”

“I can imagine.”

“Imagine what?” Lela said in a snooty manner, as if she couldn’t guess what her sister was thinking about.

“Agung – he’s so strong.. you know?.. His muscles are wonderful,” Lyana pretended to swoon. “He’s a real man who can look after you.”

“He’s big.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Lyana teased, with a glint in her eye.

 

~~~~~

 

The modifications to the fishermen’s tops were complete, and when combined with strategic make-up the sisters could now pass as older boys. The immediate worry of the Bahio tribesmen seeing the girls had dissipated somewhat. They were allowed to move about within the village under the strict understanding that they behaved in masculine ways when in the open. Listeri and the sisters tutored the other women in the use of the bow. The feeling that the women could also defend the village lifted the spirits of everyone.

Asu and Anjing grew rapidly. The young dogs were fed and petted by almost everybody. Praba thought that the dogs would not bother to bark even if Bahoi tribesmen walked straight through the village.

“They’ll only make a noise when they’re hungry,” he insisted.

“If the dogs think they’re part of the family,” said Bandri. “Then they should bark at strangers.”

Meanwhile Agung had started to build a new house in the village. Everyone understood that he needed to have better accommodation than his work shed.

 

~~~~~

 

Endah however was becoming weaker and increasingly confused. As the daughter who was still unattached, Melati took on more responsibility for looking after her mother.

Melati had found in Lela a kindred spirit and the two girls helped each other look after their sick parents. Today, in the kitchen Lela was helping Melati make a meal for Endah.

“I’m so sorry Mel,” said Lela gently, holding Melati’s hand. “I never knew she wanted you to marry Agung.”

“I’m sorry you heard.. Mother sometimes talks about it.. But don’t tell anyone else,” said Melati, trying to hold back her tears. “Mother is confused about everything now.. Some days she doesn’t know who we are – until we remind her – and then she forgets again.”

Thinking now about the discomfort of her friend, Melati said:

“I didn’t want to marry Agung anyway.”

“I’m sorry honestly – we didn’t know about this when we came to Likupang.”

“Nobody knew – she only said it to me.. But I didn’t want Agung.”

“You’re so young – there is plenty of time,” Lela said. “I don’t think I want to marry any man, but I know it’s difficult. Our father is getting weaker – and he’s worried about his daughters.”

“You look after Eko so well.”

“My mother looks after him most – and Ly and Raj.”

“Do you think Lyana wants to marry Agung?” Melati asked quietly, hoping somehow for a negative answer, even though she had seen how they were with one another.

Lela hesitated, finding it difficult to give a response to her friend’s probing question.

“I don’t think he’s asked her.”

“But if he did – do you think she would?”

“Ly loves him very much.. Yes, she wants to marry him.”

Melati felt as if the ground on which she stood was about to open up and swallow her. Agung would not be hers. Why had she not done something earlier to encourage him? Now she felt that she could never compete. How could she?

“Are you feeling alright?” asked Lela, putting her hands under Melati’s forearms. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Lela – it’s just the worry of everything.”

“Mel – you can say it to me.”

“How do you feel?” Melati asked, putting both her hands into Lela’s, trying to deflect any further scrutiny. “Do you like Agung?”

“He’s a good man. He looks after us very well. Yes, I like him.”

“Do you think he’s good looking?”

“He’s very strong – and yes, he’s good looking.. Mel, you’re so beautiful and so young that you can choose any..” but then Lela hesitated. “We should be able to choose – when we want to – if we want to.. But it’s the men that choose..”

Lela’s voice became distressed as she opened up:

“Why do men think we want them!? They only want us for one thing – to put their smelly bodies on us and have their way. It’s for their satisfaction, not ours. It’s easy for them! They put their things in our bellies and we get pregnant – we have to swell up and have babies!”

Sobbing now in Melati’s arms, Lela went on:

“We had a sister Mel – I remember her in Bitung – Her name was Aanjay, I loved her so much.. And we were young.. They killed her – the men – the men took her – they did it to her – put their things in her.. She didn’t ‘want’ them!”

Shocked and dismayed at Lela’s outburst, Melati wept too, hugging her weeping friend.

“Some men are not like that,” she said, somehow finding the strength to offer comfort. “My brothers, Rukma and Andhy are not like that.. Agung’s not like that.”

“I’m sorry Mel – for saying all this.”

“That’s alright – I’m sorry for what happened.. I wish it was better – it’s best that you show your feelings, isn’t it?”

Composing herself, Lela started to wipe away the tears.

“But you shouldn’t have heard all that.. You’re right my father and Raj are not like that.. They’ve looked after us.. Agung saved us from the bad men.”

Melati was quiet for a few moments.

“It’s difficult to trust them Lela.. But there are good men.”

“I’ll try to remember, Mel.. But we must protect ourselves too.”

 

~~~~~

 

In the morning Praba was often the first to be moving around the village; as a senior tribesman he felt duty-bound to rise early, like his father before him. His wife frequently wanted some young coconuts for their sarapan, and so just after the sun broke the horizon he scanned the nearby coconut palms to see that many suitable fruit grew on a palm with good footholds in the trunk. It was a tall tree but one that he could just about climb.

Laboriously pushing and pulling his way up the long cylindrical trunk, Praba ruefully reflected on how his two younger brothers seemed to walk up these things without much thought. But there again he was more heavily built and as he knew, far stronger.

At last he reached the crown where coconuts nestled in the middle of the wide spray of feathered leaves. Locking an arm over the base of a thick stalk, he took a breather before he began tapping lightly on the coconuts to find some of just the right maturity. A certain sound told him that the water and flesh was of just the right sweetness for his taste.

At this juncture, from his elevated position he noticed though a gap in the leaves that Agung had added a tall bamboo wall that curtained off a small area at the back of his house, right behind the shutter to the tandas room. He could look down inside this area since it had no roof; on the pebbled ground inside there was a large container.

Praba was a little puzzled at this discovery, but not particularly interested. Just then Agung approached his house from the direction of the stream, carrying two large vessels; pulling back a corner of the bamboo wall, he entered and topped up the container with water. Praba continued to watch, digging the toes of his bare feet firmly into the footholds.

Agung then tapped on the rear shutter of his house, promptly leaving and closing the bamboo wall after him. He then sat down quietly on a log at the side of the house. Very soon after that the shutter was pushed up from the inside and propped open.

“This is interesting!” mused Praba to himself, using his free hand to push back wayward hair. Now he could see first one and then two feminine legs appear as someone climbed out of the opening. It was Lyana.

A tingle of pleasure ran through him. She was dressed in a loose fitting sarong; frayed at the edges it was thin enough to see her figure underneath. She looked around for a moment or two, checking that the bamboo curtain was secure, before reaching out her hand to help her younger sister who was climbing out to join her. Lela too was dressed in a tatty old sarong, contrasting with the girl who wore it. This was something that Praba had only dreamed about – seeing these two in their night attire.

Praba glanced nervously about and realised that they would not be aware of him, nor it seems was anybody else. He was deep in the shadows of a mass of leaves that hung about the tree and even the large cluster of green and ripening fruits helped to disguise his presence. Swallowing hard even though his lips felt dry, he kept watching.

The sisters chatted quietly as Lyana reached inside through the opening to bring out a few items. He couldn’t make out what they were saying but he saw sponges in her hand and a tremble started in his arm, still locked fast around the stalk. “I don’t believe it!” he mouthed in silence as Lyana unwrapped her sarong. Pulling it off, she tossed it on the top of the shutter. The surprise and excitement nearly made him forget where he was, making him grip onto the tree to prevent himself slipping, and as the hardening took place in his groin.

Squinting through the gap in the leaves, he watched as Lela scooped up shellfulls of water to pour over her naked sister, who began soaping and sponging. With great appreciation Praba studied Lyana’s nubile figure. She had firm rounded breasts with dark tips, a smooth stomach and shapely hips. He caught sight of a small dark triangle of hair and a pair of wonderful legs that were turned this way and that as she bent over, cleaning herself.

Almost unable to believe his luck, Praba saw that Lyana was now helping her younger sister to disrobe. The still naked and wet Lyana poured water over her sister as she lathered and sponged herself down. Praba’s lascivious eyes poured over Lela’s innocent figure, sylphlike with pert breasts and small nipples, smooth flat stomach and youthful hips. Yet he could not see the expected dark triangle? “There’s no hair!” he gaped in wonder, since it appeared that there was little, if any, at the top of those trim athletic legs.

Meanwhile Agung sat patiently on his log, keeping guard.

Praba’s body shook with ecstasy and a wicked leer crossed his face as he allowed himself to revel in this glorious spectacle of two virginal, naked sisters; their brown skins glistening as they bathed each other in the dappled sunlight. From the unselfconscious manner in which they bathed, Praba came to beleive that they had been bathing together since they were children. “I bet no man has seen them naked since they were babies,” he thought. He wondered smugly to himself if they would enjoy their bathing even more if they knew they were being watched. Considering the sister’s relative merits he decided that, on balance, he found Lela even more exciting than Lyana. “Agung,” he mumbled under his breath “You’re a lucky man if you get Lyana, but I will be luckier with Lela.”

The girls dried themselves and each other by patting handfuls of cloth over their bodies. He watched as they wrapped their sarongs loosely around themselves again, and then climbed one after the other back through the open shutter. Only at that point did he feel the aching pain in the stiff arm that had been locked tight all this time over the hard stalk. A severe pain now came from the prolonged stress on his toes.

But still he couldn’t move for fear of alerting Agung. After what seemed an age, the big man stood upright, apparently in response to a call from inside. He then walked around to the front and into the house.

With an achingly-numb arm, sore feet and sweating hands, the climb down from the tree was very painful, yet Praba glowed with the secret memories of his pleasure. The yearnings unleashed would influence the future for everyone in Likupang.

 

~~~~~

 

Harta realised that he might be able to slip away from the village for a good part of the day without being noticed. He knew his brothers wouldn’t knowingly let him go anywhere near the Bahoi village, so he devised a plan of action. First he needed to build up a stock of goodwill by investing lots of time helping with the big boat, without being asked.

“Harta.. The lower boat deck is just about finished now,” Praba commented finally. “You’ve worked really well on it.”

“I could try something different tomorrow,” he responded with diffidence. “Maybe I could catch fish.”

“Alright,” replied Praba, impressed at the apparent change of attitude. “You’ve earned a break.”

At first light the next day Harta prepared the morning sarapan for Melati and his mother. As his sister came out onto the porch, Harta informed her casually:

“I’ve already eaten – I’m going fishing today.”

“Have you asked?”

“Praba says it’s alright,” he answered with a smile, picking up some fishing gear.

His sister smiled her acceptance at him, before going back into the house to help their mother. Harta picked up some more gear from their kitchen and carried it all down to the smallest fishing boat. Paddling the boat out and around the edge of the mangroves he headed northwards. That was easy enough, he thought to himself.

He kept paddling until he was well out of sight and then paused. Recently he had collected a lot of snake poison which he had mixed with Antiaris seed juice. Using some arrows with very sharp stone points bound tightly into the shaft, he made sure the poisonous sticky syrup was well soaked into the binding and behind the ‘V’ of the tip; if the arrow penetrated a crocodile’s scaly hide, he wanted to make sure the poison was not wiped off in the process. The tip of the needle-sharp point itself he carefully wiped clean of the poison in case he accidentally scratched himself. Straightening each feathered flight with his thumb and fingers, he placed the arrows strategically in the pouch hung inside the hull.

After scanning the glittering blue bay waters and seeing no other boats, Harta started his journey into the mangroves, dark, rank-smelling and crocodile-infested. Many times in his mind’s eye he had rehearsed the route he would take and this was the part he found most daunting. He feared that some lurking monster would decide to attack the hull or the bamboo outriggers, tipping him into its deadly jaws.

It was already building into a viscous heat when he reached the nipa palms. Downing freshwater and honeycomb, he prepared himself. In the small rattan backpack he carried a water container, more honeycomb, the bamboo whistle, twine and a sharp stone edge. Over his shoulder he wore his favourite bow and a quiver of the straightest, sharpest arrows he could make. At his waist he carried the pig-skin purse of poison and two bone daggers. In the boat he hid the second spear, his big bow, crocodile arrows, water containers, and his unused fishing gear.

On dry land he came to the small coastal path, but this would be too obvious and dangerous to use if he wanted to sneak up close to Bahoi. After waiting still in the vegetation for a short while, listening and watching, Harta silently crossed the path up into higher, densely wooded land – taking care to leave no trail.

By early-morning he had reached the tall strangler fig tree, and slipped his agile body though a narrow gap in the sprawling trunk. The original tree which the fig’s tendrils had smothered in its wooden embrace had long since rotted away, leaving a hollow centre housing all kinds of plant and animal life. Watching out for venomous creatures he climbed carefully upwards. Leaving his back pack and other gear in a cranny, he kept climbing. High up, through a small gap he now had an overview of the Bahoi village.

He had been here before, but this time he was planning something different. He was trying to memorise the entire layout of the village – including the best entrance and exit points. He wondered what his older brothers would be telling him now? Was he crazy? Alone in the tree right now he felt the need for some brotherly guidance, and started a mental dialogue to help him focus.

‘I’m going over the river by that fallen tree – then through those rushes above the path.’

‘Watch out for crocodiles and snakes, little brother!’

‘Can I take my spear?’

‘Hide it and your backpack before you get to the village.’

By mid-day, when the scorching sun was overhead, Harta had hidden himself in the partial shade between three large granite boulders over which scrambled a white jasmine vine just back from the beach next to the Bahoi village. On this beach, between some slanting coconut palms, the Javanese tribe kept their fishing boats. He had used every stalking technique he had been taught, and he felt as if he had just invented a couple more. His heart pounded and his mind raced with the exhilaration. Now he was close enough to see people clearly and even hear conversations!

Harta’s Javanese had improved since Eko’s family had joined Likupang. A solidly built, young man of average height with thick curly hair was talking:

Kepengin iku rampung sadurunge nemu maneh.” – “He wants it finished before he gets back.”

The young woman crouched on the ground worked on a fishing net. She had black hair about shoulder length and was quite pretty thought Harta. In an exasperated voice she replied to the man watching her:

“He expects everything done before he gets back.”

The man who had been leaning against a tree facing away from Harta, stepped over to one of the boats and bent over to look inside. Harta saw he had black stubble. He had a stern look about him partly because Harta noticed that most of the man’s right ear was missing. Harta wondered if his ear had been cut off in a fight. Wrapped around his waist was a grey-coloured kain cloth to which was attached a scabbard holding a dagger.

“I’ll find a piece of wood,” he said, walking off towards the village buildings which were about thirty paces away, shouting back as an afterthought: “Aissa will help – I’ll get her.”

Harta watched silently, as the woman carried on working and the man disappeared from sight behind a house. He looked around his position. For some reason, only now did he feel fear. Perhaps it was the act of overhearing a private conversation that made the people in Bahoi seem real. Indeed, it had finally dawned on him that if he was discovered the outcome would be disastrous, putting his family back in Likupang in great danger. He felt a cold sweat break out over his body as he realised how difficult it would now be to leave undetected.

His thoughts were dramatically interrupted by the appearance of the girl he had seen before – the girl he had been thinking about so often and for so long. There she was walking in the same tattered sarong. Her long hair fell idly around her shoulders as she sidled along in a carefree manner towards the woman mending the nets. The day seemed airless. She was older than Sukma; he could tell from the sweet swell of her breasts and the way she walked.

“Your brother wants these nets mended and the hole in that boat fixed,” said the woman. “Before he gets back.”

“He demands too much from you,” said the girl called Aissa, as she knelt down on the sand in the shade of the trees and put her hand lightly on the young woman’s leg. “Father lets him get away with it.”

To Harta, the girl’s voice sounded musical. He watched her intensely, studying her expressions and mannerisms, seeing the way she turned her eyes and raised her eyebrows. Her nose and mouth were uniquely pleasant, of a shape and manner he had never seen before, but yet of an indefinable rightness and familiarity. To Harta, she was a girl of mystery and magic. His earlier thoughts of danger were submerged, as he watched this new person named ‘Aissa’ that, unbeknown to her, so affected his life. She was so close and yet so far; there was so much he could never know about her. Maybe she was already a bride or promised in marriage?

These thoughts were instantly overcome by the arrival of two men: the solidly built, youngish man and the tall one with a thick black beard, also with a knife-sheath attached to a layered kain cloth around his waist and upper legs. Harta’s instant thought was for his bow and poisoned arrows. With consumate efficiency borne from years of practise, his hands smoothly and silently reached for the poison purse to dip an arrow head, then he nocked the back of the arrow onto the bowstring, pulling it back as it was raised. This close he would be sure of a hit – the choice was where on the body?

The bearded man was now standing with his back to Harta, looking down on the woman and girl working on the fishing net. He dropped a short length of wood on the ground.

“When you’ve finished that – use this for the boat,” he told them in dense Javanese.

The girl called Aissa looked up at him.

Burning with hatred and craving for revenge, Harta aimed.

“The net will take both of us the rest of the day,” she said with a lilt of impudence in her voice. “Can’t you fix the boat, big brother?”

An argument started. The man and the girl shouted at each other.

Harta couldn’t comprehend what was said. His mind had burst into confusion and doubt. The loathing he felt towards the bearded man had been overcome by something far more fearsome. Harta lowered his bow. Madness! I must be mad! I will be murdering this man in cold blood – in front of his sister! And then what would happen?! They would surely catch me and kill me – and then go and kill my family! Rukma had told me that! Why didn’t I listen?!

He blinked back the sweat that ran into his eyes, agonising at his own stupidity. Trembling with horror at what could have happened, Harta fought the demons in his spirit and put the arrow back into his quiver.

Once he had regained his composure he was able to observe that now the two men were trying to plug the hole in the boat with the piece of wood. They used a short-bladed knife to whittle away at the wood until it fitted, and then started banging the wood into the hole. Harta looked again at the girl, Aissa, who was still kneeling on the ground apparently none-the-worse for the argument. He watched as she carried on calmly mending the net.

After the men finished the repair they both walked back into the village, leaving the girl and woman on their own again. The young woman spoke with her head down:

“Aissa, please be careful,” she said mornfully. “If I spoke to them like that I’d be beaten so badly I couldn’t walk.. It will happen to you one day.”

Getting lightly to her feet, the girl replied nonchalantly:

“He’s too scared of father.”

She performed a skipping walk that took her much closer to Harta’s hiding place. She casually reached up to break off a stem of the jasmine vine. The act of pulling the stem to break it caused some of the riper jasmine flowers to fall down around her and land as white snowflakes on her black hair. Harta stood motionless, pinned against a boulder in the shade. The hot air seemed difficult to breath. He looked at her through the bees that buzzed harmlessly around the blooming jasmine vine. In the shade of the vine, she smelt a perfumed flower and turned to pull off another stem, and froze.

In that desperate moment as they stared at each other, he put his trembling forefinger to his lips, silently pleading with her to stay quiet. His other trembling hand accidentally moved the vine causing more white flowers to fall. She breathed in and started to open her mouth as if to scream, but hesitated as the delicate flowers gently floated down between them.

Slowly her lips pursed together and her eyes quizzed him as if to say ‘Who are you?!’

Her response brought tears of relief and he tried to mouth his name, ‘Harta’. She stared as if in utter disbelief, first at his face, and then her eyes scanned his form, outlined in the dappled shade against the grey granite boulder behind him. Her eyes returned to stare again at his face. She had seen his weapons, but seemed to assess that he was no threat to her.

She turned her head away briefly to look at her companion still seated on the ground mending the net, and then glanced towards the village before looking at him again. After another lengthy moment, she whispered urgently:

Pindhah!” – “Go!”

Understanding her meaning, he nodded. Slipping sideways, he quickly backed out between two of the boulders and they lost sight of each other. Now he was back in the rushes above the path. Making as much haste as he dared, he retraced his route back to the crossing of the river behind the fallen tree, all the time expecting pursuit or a hail of arrows – but nothing happened.

Back at the base of the strangler fig he paused for breath in the undergrowth, listening. He was tempted to climb the tree to look back at the village, and to look back at Aissa. But that would be tempting the generosity of the spirits; they had already granted him and his family the blessing of an escape. The encounter had already been seared into his consciousness.

Picking his way back towards his boat hidden in the nipa palms, Harta reflected on the crisis. Truely only Aissa had granted the blessing. She could easily have called out – yet she chose to set free an armed stranger! Anxiety gnawed at him and he prayed that she would keep their secret; he knew that this would be her decision and there was nothing he could do about it now. But at least there was one thing he could do; he determined to find a piece of fabric on which to draw a map when he got back to Likupang.

It was mid afternoon when he reached the boat and started to paddle out of the channel. The water level was lower and the passage more difficult. Several grinning crocodiles lurked on the mudflats and a couple slid into the murky waters as he passed. Gritting his teeth, he kept up a steady careful stroke. He eyed the outriggers on each side as they trailed through the water, half-expecting at any time the bamboo to be clamped in monstrous jaws. He glanced at his bow and poisoned arrows, and then again at the outriggers.

Eventually he arrived at the widening exit to the broad bay waters as the watching sun neared the horizon. Before setting off back to Likupang he turned the boat around, looking back into the channel where a large crocodile was still visible on a mud bank. He wanted to know something.

Picking up his bow Harta loaded and took aim, releasing a large stone-tipped poisoned arrow which flew straight and true, lodging cleanly into the neck. The beast hissed, rose on its squat legs and made for the water. Harta sent another arrow on its way which struck the sweeping tail just as it splashed out of sight. He loaded a third arrow but there was nothing to aim at.

The water surface was hardly disturbed. He waited.

On the surface a ripple started, until a scaly tail broke out and slapped back in. A short while later began the thrashing. At first it looked like one crocodile rolling and ripping, but then he saw at least two scaly tails break the surface as the foaming waters turned red. In revulsion, he launched his third arrow into the middle of the carnage.

Harta paddled past the mangroves near Likupang where he could see his mother and Melati standing on the beach, waiting. His brothers were preparing a boat to launch. They all stared at him and he knew a punishment was inevitable. He had no fish. They had trusted him and he had deceived them.

He must confess to his deceit – but only that he had gone to climb the strangler fig tree. He could never tell them about Aissa! Leaving all his gear in the boat, Harta stepped out onto the pebbled beach at low tide with the setting sun behind him, and walked meekly towards his family.

 

~~~~~

 

Two days later, Bandri and Raharjo went on a small expedition. The boy wanted to learn more about honeybees, especially the big wild honeybees that made their large crescent homes under the branches of trees. One of the colonies had built their home quite close to the ground in an old ramin tree, and the bees were clearly visible from a nearby rocky outcrop. As long as they were careful, it was possible to get close enough to see the bees going about their everyday business.

Bandri knew the dangers, especially if they didn’t make smokers; these bees could be lethally dangerous if lots of them attacked. Bandri and Raharjo kept low to the ground and quietly skirted around the ramin tree so that they could then climb up the rock and peer over the top at the colony. They talked quietly as they lay against the rock face and watched:

“See what happens when a bee flies in to join them,” Bandri whispered.

The two waited for a while, looking at the many thousands of closely packed jostling black and orange striped bees that covered the large crescent bee home. A busy humming sound emanated from the dense mass.

“Some of the bees that fly in then start wiggling, and some of them go right inside under the other bees,” Raharjo said.

Bandri looked at the boy with respect, since this observation had taken him years to see.

“How many bees are there?” asked Raharjo.

“I don’t know, but there are lots more than you can see on the outside because there are many other bees underneath – and then underneath them is the comb with honey in the top part and young bees at the bottom part.”

“Bandri.. After you told me about the flowers, I looked at a lot of flowers – and I saw the yellow dust.. What is the dust for?.. I mean is it just for the bees that are collecting it?”

The question was a good one. It was a good question because Bandri felt there had to be an important reason for the flowers to make the dust – and not just to give it away to the bees. It was also a good question because he didn’t know the answer. As he lay there he remembered Ayu telling him in fun that ‘he should be more curious!’

The boy was quietly waiting for the answer.

Bandri chuckled and looked at the boy:

“Raj.. I don’t know – but we’ll try and find out.”

 

Ayu was doing a simple daily task. Using a long bamboo bristled broom she was sweeping leaves and other debris out of the house. She found it pleasing to see the neat pattern left behind on the sandy pebbled floor, and was amused by her mild preoccupation of trying not to walk on and disturb the newly swept floor.

Something in her body made her pause. Standing up straight she breathed in and tipped her head a little to one side as if listening to herself. She felt it was true. For a number of days she had been wondering. She had felt tingling in her nipples and her breasts seemed more sensitive, but then again it could be her imagination. The regular reminder of her womanhood hadn’t happened recently. Now she felt something in her body that she had never felt before, accompanied by a feeling of nervous anticipation.

She looked out through the door, across the open porch, down to the beach, the surf and the beautiful bay, breathing in the fresh sea air. Her eyes retraced their journey, looking back inside the room at the ornate sea shell in its cot and then their bamboo bed. She smiled wistfully. Her bare feet walked across the patterned floor and she knelt down by the bed. Her fingers felt for and found the golden nugget. She smiled lovingly at the nugget, and looked around for somewhere to keep her gift, her eyes coming to rest on the large seashell in the small hammock.

Ayu put a hand protectively on her still small belly, loving what was happening inside her. Closing her eyes for many moments, she held the seashell and prayed.

 

The man and the boy walked back along the path towards the village, occasionally stopping to examine flowers along the way.

“See.. nearly all of them have the dust,” observed the boy.

“I have seen bees on most of them. You can see the dust stuck to the bees then they put it on their legs to go back to the nest,” Bandri explained. “To get that much dust they visit lots of flowers.”

“But they don’t take all the dust from the flowers,” said Raharjo.

Bandri raised his eyebrows at yet another insight provided by his young companion.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” he said. “The plants must need it for something.”

They stepped over the low wall and entered the village. Raharjo ran back to Agung’s house, while Bandri walked towards his own house.

 

On their porch he embraced his wife from behind and kissed the single freckle in the smooth curve where her neck joined her shoulder. She pulled his hand down low over her belly and bent her head back towards him.

“Only you,” she murmured in his ear. “Jus lelaki anda telah membuat bayi yang di dalam.” – “Your man juice has made a baby inside.”

He breathed in all the air his body could capture, somehow shocked by her powerful intimacy and its meaning, marvelling at what she was telling him.

 

~~~~~

 

The strong sun had reached its zenith and was falling now towards the horizon. Agung and Lyana walked along the beach. They walked apart. From a distance she could be viewed as a boy. They tried to act casually, not looking at each other, not even speaking. They knew others may be watching them, but they hoped not. As they reached nearly to the end of the sandy stretch they stopped. Here the beach became pebbly. Nearby was a dense clump of small fig trees.

Agung’s heart pounded with excitement as he struggled to pretend that they were just idly browsing the beach together. At this moment he was glad that the kathok garment he was wearing was his looser one. He turned around as if admiring the view, but scanning to see if anyone was watching. Satisfied that the village was otherwise occupied, he slipped out of view behind the fig trees. Lyana followed him.

In the shade of the trees they could only be seen by someone out at sea, or maybe along the beach. He pulled off the wig and stood breathing more quickly than the exercise had required. Now at last they were on their own together. He beckoned her into a space between the trees, where no-one could see them from the beach.

“Did anybody see us?” he asked nervously.

“I don’t think so,” she whispered as if someone might hear, although the closest person would have been well out of earshot. “But we should get back soon”

They moved closer together now, very close. She looked up at him, putting her hands slowly on his chest. Her fragrance and soft warmth melted his shyness. He put his arms around her waist, pulling her closer, sensing her shape delicately impacting his lower chest. Watching her lips open to expel a muted gasp, he hesitated, not wanting to fumble, before taking his time to bend his head down. Accepting his embrace, she slipped her hands up around his neck, as naturally as that. He put his mouth upon hers.

Time stood still for them as they learned this new skill. They explored each others lips and tongues: how they felt, how they moved, how they tasted. They lost themselves, engrossed in tender compelling blissfulness. Their lips fell apart, breathlessly, studying closely each other’s faces, breathing in each other’s air, intensely aware of this other person who was changing their life forever. They kissed some more, passionately.

Against her hot belly she felt the firmness of his arousal. She had kindled and lit the flame of desire. The padded top got in the way but she knew she should keep it on. She must try to resist.

 

~~~~~

 

Bandri relaxed on their porch. Looking at the hint of clouds appearing in the east, he wondered whether the rains might come soon. He wondered what the future held for his family? The world had changed now there was a baby on the way.

Jus lelaki?” – “Man juice?” he chuckled, moving his head slightly from side to side. Man juice made babies did it? They had a few names for the milky liquid men produced, but now he liked this one. They had not wanted children straight after getting married and just wanted to enjoy being together. They enjoyed sex.

He had learned to hold back his urge, and then he could withdraw and share his ‘jus’ on her blissful belly. Or he loved her in other ways. But for a while they had loved freely and totally. To make a new life with Ayu was everything he could hope for.

Life was abundant all around him. He could see the very pregnant Puteri sorting out a squabble between the young children. Ayu shooed away escaped brush turkeys and their chicks from the kitchen, while the rooster strutted nearby. He could see brightly coloured male sunbirds in the bushes, courting the females. The birds were at it too: males and females.

He heard the familar thud of a ripe coconut dropping to the ground a short distance away. Looking up at the coconut palms he could see birds and of course the bees and other insects around the flowers and nuts. He could see the long spikes of small flowers, and the young coconuts hanging from the spikes. When the big nuts fall they made ‘baby trees’. And so life goes on.

He got up from the log that was shaped like a bench, and climbed easily up the trunk of nearest coconut palm, taking his knife with him. Up amongst the long splayed out leaves he looked at the tiny yellowish flowers on the spikes; they made ‘dust’ as well. Why did the flowers make all this dust?

From his hidden vantage point he noticed Agung and Lyana walking at the further end of the beach, before slipping from view behind the fig trees. Bandri chuckled and muttered under his breath “Dear friend, give us time to get the boat ready before you get her pregnant!”

Sex was everywhere!

He cut off a long flower spike and clambered back down to the ground. He could see that one by one the little flowers turned gradually into coconuts. Sitting on their bench, he cut open some flowers and young coconuts. It was the bits in the centre of the flower that turned into baby coconuts – but not the bits of the flower that made the dust or ‘jus’..!

“Ayu.. What are the flowers for?”

She stopped what she was doing and looked at her husband with a puzzled expression, sensing that he was teasing her.

“Let me see,” she mused, plucking an Ipomoea flower. She twirled the delicate pink trumpet around beside her head, and sniffed it. “Because they’re pretty.. Because the birds and the bees like them?”

She watched his grinning face, and guessed that he had something else in his mind.

“ Alright.. Because they make fruit.. and seeds,” she said, now looking at the spike of young coconuts in his hands: “- and coconuts?”

He chuckled gleefully.

“Alright – I’m curious.. Well, I’m waiting..?”

She came and tickled him:

“Tell me then..?”

 

Bandri lay under their batik bed sheet, watching her. The setting sun threw honeyed light through the gaps, glowing the room into gorgeous warmth.

He waited for her to finish combing her hair. She had wrapped herself in a sarong, leaving her shoulders bare. She closed her eyes as she swept the comb though cascades of hair, bending her head one way and then another. Her lips parted a little as the comb caught, and then her features relaxed again into sultry serenity.

He marvelled at how nature or the spirits had ever created this creature he shared his life with; this thoughtful, clever, fun loving, exotic creature. Beautiful, for the lure in her eyes when she loved. Beautiful, for the way she cared, even if she was sad. Beautiful, for the way she thought. Beautiful.

She tucked the comb into the hammock next to the sea shell. She knew his eyes were on her. He would be looking closely at her, looking at her belly. It was only this day that they had learned she was pregnant, but he would be looking.

Pulling out the end of the sarong, she paused for a moment, and then just let it fall away from her body. It floated to the floor. He looked at her. She waited without moving, then with courage she slowly turned around. Slim and shapely, elegant, not boastful or proud, but just sharing herself with him. Bathed in the dappled light of the room, he looked at her nymphean naked figure.

Nipples of black pearl crowned the brown skin of her firm breasts, carried high under her slender neck and trim shoulders. As she turned, the curves of her gentle hips became two, ever so smooth and flawless mounds below her slim back. In the low light he could see, between the firmness of her cheeks, the small diamond of her sex, where her lovely long legs began. Her tummy showed just a little, but he loved her all the more.

Inside her grew their baby made with his juice. He loved her all the more because she chose him to be the father. She chose him to change her body.

She tip-toed coyly to the bed, lifted the sheet and lay beside him. Almost immediately she climbed on top of him. Her weight pressed preciously down on him, she and their baby lightly holding him down. She smiled down at him with mischief in her eyes. She kissed him softly, pulling back when he lifted his head to kiss her more passionately. Her body lay perfectly on top of his, skin next to skin, intoxicating.

Kissing him delicately, she started on his neck, then his chest, then she kissed down his body, treating him the way he treated her. He looked into her eyes – they told him to stay where he was. He should surrender. Her hands gently pushed his hands away. Hidden under the light fabric, she knelt between his legs, spreading them apart.

He closed his eyes. At her mercy, he succumbed to her tongue and lips lavishing their intimate love. She brought him to the edge, but then lightly kissed the source of his juice, sensing the way his manhood seemed to have a life of its own. Tenderly, rhythmically, she nurtured his arousal, feeling the tremors building inside him, until the eruption of potent juice.

His breathing diminished. Through glazed eyes, he looked down at her emerging from under the bed sheet. Daintily she moved the tip of a forefinger around in a drop of slippery juice, and smiled up at him with triumphant coyness:

“So – your dust is in here?”

He burst into laughter.

 

Very early the next morning Raharjo turned up on their porch, enthusiastically waving around several different flower specimens.

“These all make dust too!” he announced, rubbing his fingers over the anthers.

 

They had just finished their sarapan when Listeri walked towards their house, stopping respectfully just outside the porch where they sat. Ayu stood to greet her, and the women kissed each other lightly on the cheeks. Listeri took hold of Ayu’s left hand with both of hers, looking, searchingly, into Ayu’s face. The visitor then glanced down momentarily at the simple loose sarong that Ayu was wearing, before smiling at Bandri.

“Raj has told us things about the flowers,” she said, accepting a seat in the shade of the bright morning sun. “My husband wants to speak to you both, if that is alright?”

“Of course, we can come this morning,” Bandri answered, glancing at Ayu who provided a serving of young coconut and fruit for their guest.

They chatted for a while about other things, until Listeri returned to her house.

Ayu turned to look at her husband, saying:

“She knew I was pregnant.”

“How?”

“I don’t know – but she has three children of her own.”

Bandri eyes flickered as he remembered a confidence told to him and Agung in Pantai. He kissed his wife on the forehead and held her close.

 

Raharjo and his two sisters led Ayu and Bandri into Eko’s bedroom, where a low bamboo couch was close by the host’s bed. Raharjo closed the door, remaining in the other room with his sisters. Eko greeted them as the young couple sat down on the couch. Listeri sat down on the edge of the bed, close beside her husband who then looked across at Bandri and straightaway asked:

“I am very interested to hear about your ideas for the flowers?”

“Sir.. Your son and I have been looking at the yellow dust that the flowers make, because the bees collect it when they visit the flowers.”

Eko waited for Bandri to continue.

“We think the dust comes from the male part of the flowers so that bees take it to the female parts of other flowers – to make the seed and the fruit.”

It was simple but weighty in its concept. Saying it out loud seemed to clarify the idea in Bandri’s own mind. To him it now made perfect sense.

“The plants have male and female parts and they need to make seeds and fruit for the next generation – so the bees help them,” he elaborated. “It’s like what happens with men and women – but we don’t need to use the bees.”

After he had said this, Bandri realised that perhaps he had added unnecessary detail. Glances were shared between the four of them, until Eko gave out a hearty chuckle.

“We moved away from our home and we have learned to change our ideas,” expressed Listeri. “But the dust is so small – it is difficult to believe. If people cannot see it, how can they believe it?”

“When I see a little spider making its web – I wonder how it knows what to do, even though its brain and its heart must be so very small,” said Ayu in soft tones. “Maybe there are many small things that are important.”

Bandri felt his heart turn over in joy and appreciation for the way she was.

“You are a special couple,” said Eko thoughtfully, taking Ayu’s hand in his. “You have given us many things.”

Ayu raised his hand and touched it to her forehead as a silent response, to which Eko responded:

“I hope your son has your ears.”

The remark spoke volumes to Bandri, although his wife blinked her eyes in polite surprise.

“Ayu,” added Eko. “May I say something that you must keep to yourself – your husband will understand?”

Ayu accepted after understanding the mantra’s significance.

During the recital, Eko paused and nodded after the phrase: “Cahya Ibu lenggah lan mirsani ngarsane kamulyane saka serangga dheweke karo dheweke kembang.” – “Our Sun Mother sat down and watched the glorious sight of her insects mingling with her flowers.” Continuing he paused again after the phrase: “lan dheweke digawe tanduran wong kang wiji menyang wong wadon.” – “and she made men plant their seed into women.” This time there was the hint of a smile, before he completed the sacred recitation.

Listeri moved her lips silently, reflecting the words as her husband spoke. Bandri watched his wife’s polite reception of the mantra, and the poise with which she smiled her thanks at the end.

“Yes, my trusted friends,” said Eko. “I can believe that our Sun Mother has made some things so small that we can never see them. I can see how this can be – the flowers are beautiful for a reason.”

“To attract the bees to make fruit!” breathed Listeri in revelation.

A sense of understanding hung in the room.

“Your idea is a good one and I like it myself,” said Eko. “But many people will not believe it. For some, they may think you are saying that the Sun is not the mother of the Earth. They may say you are a disbeliever.”

Ayu smiled, putting her hand on Bandri’s arm.

“Yes, sometimes it’s best not to upset peoples’ beliefs.”

“ We hope -,” Bandri said, but barking dogs interrupted him. He listened as Asu and Anjing kept barking?! Shocked into another reality, he got to his feet.

“Get your bows!” announced Listeri, her voice crisp and urgent – carrying through to the next room.

“Stay here – check the shutters,” said Bandri, his words tumbling out. “I’ll look outside.”

Snatching up his own bow and quiver he rushed for the door, saying the same again to Raj and the sisters in the next room. He opened the outside door with his heart pounding, and looked around. He saw the shutters on the houses closing to a small gap.

Praba and Andhy ran past, shouting:

“They’re in the forest! – Get ready!”

For a heartbeat his body seemed weak and frozen. Fingers tingling, he dipped an arrow, nocked it, and peered around the edge of the work shed at the forest beyond. His eyes still shocked by the mid-morning sun, he stared at the trees and the shadows between them. He scanned for movement or any human form.

Asu and Anjing still barked, running around outside the low walls. His mind whirled. Breathing came in quick bursts. Now Bandri worried about Harta and glanced up at the hill; he couldn’t see him and this anxiety tore at him – until with relief he saw his kid brother splashing through the fording point of the river.

Agung stopped behind him.

“Father is with the girls.”

Bandri turned and for a split-moment his eyes focused on the poison smeared over the tip of the arrow loaded into a big bow, before glancing into the welcome face of his friend. He turned again to search the forest. Then he saw them. Three, no four figures in the shadows – in range of the big bows only. They had practised this; he knew how far away they were. His bow wouldn’t reach that far, but closer it was fast and accurate.

“I see them – four in the forest.”

Whistles! Praba whistled his call from outside his house, and so did Andhika. Everyone had their signal. Behind him Agung gave his. Bandri called his, then Rukma in the other house and Harta with him. Thank the Spirits – everyone’s in the village – everyone was ready.

The figures in the shadows moved. Maybe there were more than four? How many were there?!

“Five,” Agung grunted over his right shoulder. “Six.”

The barking noise seemed to fade as Bandri’s hearing hummed for any other sound and his eyes scoured the forest around the village. What were they here for!?

Kita arep kanggo pirembagan!” – “We want to talk!” came a shout from the forest.

Praba gesticulated at Bandri, telling him to stay where he was.

Tampilake dhewe!” – “Show yourselves!” Praba called back from the porch of his house.

“There are many of us. If you attack us, you and your children will die!” came the reply with the same voice.

“Show yourselves!” shouted an angry Praba. “We will defend ourselves if you attack us!”

Two men in kain clothes stepped from behind a large tree into a patch of sunlight. Both carried large bows and knives at the waist; the bows were undrawn but ready loaded with arrows. Bandri recognised them instantly: the tall bearded man and Yuwa. Agung gave out a low hiss of hatred from behind as Bandri realised that lives depended on any exchange of words that took place. Almost numb with concentration, his mind conceived that there might be hope with Yuwa?

“I have to talk with Praba,” he said urgently, turning to Agung and meeting his friend’s expression with his own. “Ayu and the sisters are in here,” he added.

“I’ll stay here,” vowed Agung, nodding his head in acceptance.

Bandri dashed across the gap between the houses, half expecting a volley of arrows – but there was none. Crashing next to Praba he panted:

“Let me talk with them.”

“If they want to talk – they have to come here!” snapped Praba.

“Alright. At the wall,” said Bandri. The low wall around their village was closer to the village than the forest beyond. “Yuwa will do that,” he added, seeing his brother’s expression. “It’s better if both of us meet them.”

His brother pushed his hair back firmly before saying vehemently:

“Alright, but we can’t trust that dog – you know that!”

Subdued, Bandri took a deep breath and nodded in response.

“We will meet you by the wall!” shouted Praba.

“If you attack us, you and your children will die!” the tall bearded man shouted again.

“We are not attacking you!!” Praba shouted loudly in anger, and then under his breath he muttered “Coward.”

“Be careful brother,” hushed Bandri. “We don’t want to anger them.”

“Two of us will meet you at the wall!” Praba shouted, with slightly less volume. “We will not attack you!”

While they waited for a reply, Bandri looked around to see Agung and the others looking on from their positions at the houses. Inside the houses, the families watched through gaps in the shutters. It was down to himself and Praba to face them. As he battled to maintain his self-control Bandri thought of Ayu and his dear father.

Sehat!” – “Alright!” shouted the Bahoi senior, who scanned in all directions before he advanced a couple of paces with Yuwa beside him. “Now you go to the wall!”

Holding bows by their side, Bandri and Praba readied themselves and briskly walked together up to the wall, ready for any sign of attack, ready to throw themselves on the ground behind the wall at the first sign of incoming arrows. Bandri guessed that any arrows from the forest would be poisoned. In the shadows he spotted a large outline more exposed than the others, but if they had to defend themselves his target with a big beard was already lit by the sun.

The two Bahoi tribesmen then advanced until the men from both tribes stood just a couple of paces apart, either side of the wall. All four of them now stood in the bright light of the morning sun, holding a loaded-undrawn bow in one hand and with the other hand close to a knife at the waist.

Iku apik kanggo duwe rapat.” – “It is good to have a meeting,” said the bearded man flatly, using tribal protocol as if had no meaning.

Bandri could sense his older brother struggling to contain his anger. Before Praba said anything, Bandri replied using as much respect as his emotions could allow:

Sugeng sore, Sugeng sore, Yuwa.” – “Good morning, Good morning, Yuwa.”

Standing just behind his senior, Yuwa gave a slight nod in recognition. The bearded man stared disdainfully back at Bandri, possibly aware of the greater recognition given to his junior tribesman. Breathing deeply, Bandri looked straight back into the man’s face, always remembering the cowardly murder of his dear father! The man looked past Bandri and made a smirking display of surveying the village. Incensed, Bandri felt like digging out the man’s eyes with his own fingers.

Kok singe kene?!” – “Why are you here?!” demanded Praba curtly, betraying his anger.

The man now glared at Praba.

Ana luwih saka kita!” – “There are more of us!” he stated coldly, pausing for the words to find their mark. Bandri’s heart ached with the cynical reality, and out of the corner of his eye Bandri could see his brother sucking hard on his lip.

“Your tribe has new people,” stated the bearded senior, as if this was somehow prohibited.

Hearing Praba take a deep breath, Bandri quickly answered:

“Yes, there are new people.”

No words came from Praba.

“Two of them wear clothes for fishermen,” the man said as if expecting an explanation.

“Yes,” Bandri said simply, waiting for the proper question as his own mind raced for the answer.

“Why is that?!”

“The sun is hard on them,” Bandri said as calmly as he could muster. “Their skin blisters in the heat.”

“Boys should be strong!” scoffed the senior, avoiding Bandri’s eyes.

“They are very strong, but their skin is not.”

The man shifted his gaze to Praba.

“You are a senior now,” he stated. “Is this true?”

“Yes!” Bandri could sense the fury burning within his brother. “We do not ask these things of your tribe!” Praba snarled.

The two seniors shifted their bodies in readiness, further poisoning the atmosphere of hostility. Yuwa tensed and Bandri felt his own body ready itself. Desperately Bandri held onto his sanity; carefully measuring the rhythm, touching his chest as he spoke the name of the Sun Mother, he quoted word for word the phrase:

Cahya Ibu dheweke disebut kabeh jalmo dheweke kanggo dheweke lan diweling mangkene kanggo seneng kasugihan saka bumi lan manggon karo siji liyane.” –

“The Sun Mother called all her creatures to her and instructed them to enjoy the wealth of the earth and to live with one another.”

Both Bahoi tribesmen stared at him with incredulity, while Praba glanced uncertainly between the other three. Bandri looked at Yuwa.

“Out here the Sun Mother witnesses everything,” stated Bandri, thinking of words his father would have said, and once again touching his chest.

“You have been trusted, Bandri,” said Yuwa quietly. The words were spoken with respect, and without deference to his tribal senior. The tall bearded man turned to scowl at his junior.

“We respect you, and ask you to respect us,” said Bandri, pulling back the attention of the Bahio senior. Bandri knew he had succeeded in refocusing the Javanese men on a matter of spiritual necessity.

“How many Malay know this?!” demanded the bearded man, clearly affronted.

“Two.”

The man looked in shock at Praba.

“Another person who will not speak of it,” said Bandri, creating confusion in the expression of the Bahio senior.

“Your father gave our tribe his blessing,” claimed Praba, evidently disconnected from the latest events.

“If our mantra is spoken to others – or you deceive us,” retorted the bearded man in anger, glaring back at Bandri, “The Sun Mother will see that my father’s blessing can be broken.”

Bandri thought rapidly about the the conditions set and the implications of the statement. The risks of deception were high, but better than violent conflict today.

“The Sun Mother witnessed your father’s blessing,” replied Bandri formally, touching his chest appropriately. “It is agreed, the mantra will not be spoken and we will not deceive you. The Sun Mother has witnessed our words.”

Glaring at the young man opposite, the senior Bahoi tribesman was silent for long moments. Praying for silence from his brother, Bandri held eye-contact as peacably as he knew how, until the man’s left eye twitched.

Kita pengin taler panjenengan saben berkah.” – “We wish your tribe every blessing,” Bandri said amicably, trying to reduce the tension while maintaining control.

He gambled now on the man not wanting to be seen breaking faith with the Javanese spirit. Had he succeeded in positioning him as a disbeliever if he broke his father’s blessing? Would the man fear losing paradise in the Javanese afterlife?

Bandri waited, praying again that Praba would not interfere. After a long excoriating glower, the bearded man broke eye-contact and turned his back on the two Malay men to stride into the forest. Yuwa nodded quickly towards Bandri, before turning to join the senior.

Thankful that he had found the words he needed, Bandri counted the dark outlines of seven armed tribesmen who joined up with the other two. All nine then melted into the vegetation. The two brothers stood together, scanning for any further activity.

“Where’s the father of that dog!?” fumed Praba under his breath, before pushing back his sodden hair and turning to his younger brother “What mantra?”

 

[] Epilogue

Sex, honey and survival

The story of human passion, sex and the struggle for survival is many thousands of years old. Indeed, since it first started over a billion years ago, the story of life in its multitudinous and varied forms has revolved around sex.

Sex is therefore fundamental to the telling of this story. Part of this story is that of plant sex and the bees, and also of our relationship to the plants on which we depend and to the bees that pollinate them. This story is becoming ever more important as humans are faced increasingly with a struggle for survival in an over-stretched world.

Bees have been discovered in amber over a hundred million years old, frozen in time, as if immortalized in their own honey. Bees have been buzzing around flowers like Magnolias since dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

A lot has happened during the incredibly long time that flowers and bees have been evolving together. Great land masses drifted north and crashed together to gradually form the continents we know today. The tropical islands of the Pacific were formed by parts of the continents breaking off, and also by crustal and volcanic activity.

Sixty five million years ago, in a few minutes, a massive meteor caused climate change and devastation that signalled the demise of the dinosaurs and the birth of many new life forms. The bees and flowers lived through the apocalypse and on into the next epoch, as did some early crocodiles, snakes, birds and the rat-like mammals that would eventually give rise to humankind.

Survival, born from successful genetic combinations had proven the need for sex. The essential act of sex shuffles the deck of life – the genes of inheritance – passed on through the generations, giving life a better chance of adapting and surviving. Life needs sex to survive and evolve. Life on our planet has evolved into amazing variety, with millions of plant and animal species. Sex is vital for plants and animals so that they can have healthy progeny which may be better survivors.

After an astronomic number of trials and errors, of deriving what works best, most plant species evolved to create flowers. Nature had good reasons for making this happen. Plants are driven to increase their number and spread their species, thereby improving their chance of survival. They can push their roots and shoots into new territory, but being rooted to the ground they must find other ways to spread to new places.

Some plants, such as the grasses, gamble on casting into the wind billions of their tiny masculine pollen grains hoping that a few, by chance, will land on the feminine stigmas of another plant of the same species. Most pollen is lost in this lottery but enough female organs are found that they can make seeds to spread their species still further.

Many other plants found animal friends, especially bees, to carry their male pollen grains straight to the female stigma. The trick was to entice the friend with an attractive flower, a gift of fragrant energy-rich nectar to sip, and some nutritious pollen to be stuck onto their body. Now when the animal friend visits another flower there will be a good chance of botanical sex or pollination. In addition, many pollinated plants produced fruits or nuts so that feeding animals would help spread the species.

Each of countless generations of organisms shuffling the deck a little more, sometimes being lucky and surviving, but sometimes not. Gradually the survivors became better adapted to achieve survival. The collaboration between plants and animals over millions and millions of years created amazingly complex designs for achieving mutual success. And so, the pollination ‘pact’ between the plants and the bees became fundamental for so much life on our planet.

Some bees found great success by working closely together as a family, developing their own complex civilizations in colonies of many thousands of individuals. To care for each other the honeybees created intricate wax combs to raise their young and store their food of pollen and honey. For numerous millennia the bees have made honey from the flower nectars and plant saps to provide themselves through the hard-times with a naturally healthy food containing a complex mix of sugars, anti-oxidants and other bioactive agents. Honey is needed by these bees for their own survival as a colony.

In south-east Asia, native bee species evolved suited for the tropical climate and the wide variety of plant species. In the tropics, 75% of plant species require pollinators for effective reproduction, including many important food crops. For these plants, using pollinators was an effective and efficient way of transferring their pollen. The primary native bee pollinators are the large wild honeybee ( Apis dorsata) and the smaller Asian honeybee (Apis cerana). There are also many stingless bee species. In a healthy tropical eco-system these native bee colonies would be present in large numbers.

Long before humans enjoyed the beauty of flowers, nature had created them solely to attract the pollinators. Long before us humans, over millions of years so many plants had already made their unspoken but implicit pact with the bees: “We grow these flowers to feed you with nectar and pollen, so that you will take our pollen to another flower for sex.” The plants achieved pollination and the pollinators collected food. That was the world humans inherited.

Thinking humans first strode onto the scene about a hundred thousand years ago. They surely wondered why the world was the way it was, but they had only the faintest inkling. They needed to recognise and to know which plants and animals were food or were helpful, and which were dangerous. Originally from Africa, humans migrated over other parts of Asia into Sulawesi. Scientists have determined that the paintings of hands and animals in limestones caves on the island of Sulawesi are about 40,000 years old, making them the earliest known creations of human art anywhere in the world – the paintings include handprints and that of a babirusa or ‘pig-deer’.

In early human societies, sex was an inescapable and central driving force in their struggle to survive. That same struggle also encouraged the need for individuals in a society to develop their ideas for hunting food, how they responded to the threats they faced, how they worked together, and even their artistic development. Languages and tools helped to change our world and to change us.

Empathy and love are attributes almost uniquely displayed by humans, and these capabilities probably evolved gradually. The ability to understand and predict the behaviour of other individuals allows humans to work in socially complex ways. A tribe will have a competitive advantage if they are able to work together better than another tribe. Bonding between individuals is heightened by empathy and the emotions of love, therefore increasing the likelihood of survival. As the antithesis of love, hate would also have a role in survival – it appears that passion and hatred are built into the nature of humanity.

Communities gave us the opportunity to develop culture and knowledge, as well as the ability to love or to hate, to plan or to plot, to defend or to attack. An elemental reason for conflicts amongst tribal societies is the struggle by the males for mating access to the females, and the desire of the females for suitable males who can offer ‘love’, family and security. There is scarcely any passion without struggle, and we are the only beings that can reflect on the past and think about what might happen in the future.

These capabilitities were developed over many thousands of years since those who had better intellects were more likely to survive. People felt many complex emotions ranging from appreciation and yearning, including sexual desire and lust, love, joy, trust and loyalty, through to suspicion, jealousy, loss, sadness, disgust, fear, hate, anger and all the emotions of violence necessary for survival and lethal aggression.

Ancient societies were also capable of deep loving relationships and nurturing family environments, where some men behaved with respect towards women and girls. There would have been space for romance, pleasure and even hedonism. Polygamy was often practiced. In many societies however, it is likely that women and girls were treated with little or no respect; where the law depended on brute-force with rampant use of abduction, rape, forced ‘marriage’, abuse, slavery, intimidation and murder.

There is much evidence that early humans developed spiritual beliefs and on some basis made cultural or moral judgements. By the Bronze Age humans had acquired much of the complex range of emotions, curiosity and intelligence that exist in the make-up of modern humans. Such skills enabled us to wonder about the world around us, develop abstract thought and make new discoveries.

An intelligent person, even without formal education, could deduce that the moon was a ball and lit by the sun. The Kon-Tiki expedition and other studies have demonstrated that some ancient societies thousands of years ago appreciated that the Earth was a sphere. These peoples also studied the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Such knowledge would have helped human migrations across the oceans. In the words of Thor Heyerdahl: ‘The ocean has been man’s highway from the days he built the first bouyant ships, long before he tamed the horse, invented wheels, and cut roads through the virgin jungles.’

Why would ancient peoples embark on a treacherous voyage across the open ocean with an unknown destination? This question appears more mysterious if the land they are leaving is green and fertile? The Kon-Tiki study indicates that people from South America were driven into the Pacific Ocean by conflict – they were early refugees. Today Europe is experiencing a modern refugee migration across the Mediterranean. Conflict has been a prime motivator for migration throughout human history.

Linguistic and genetic evidence indicates a connection between peoples in Sulawesi in Indonesia and Mindanao in the Philippines. In addition sea and wind currents flow northwards between the two islands. Archaeologists assess that the first appearance of metal technology in the Philippines occurred about 2,500 years ago, probably from Indonesia.

‘The Tropical Sun’ tells a hitherto untold story of conflict and migration. It also tells the practical and emotional story of a people who lived extraordinary lives. To live and survive in such times needed resourcefulness and resilience. This story also reflects on the nature of conflict, the nature of belief and the relationship of people to their environment, all of which are fundamentally important in today’s world.

Inventions such as writing appear to have happened independently in different societies. It is very possible that some people realised the basic reason why a plant grows flowers, which is to enable pollination. It is also likely that much knowledge gained in the course of history was not documented, or lost. (The discovery of pollination has been accredited to people just 300 years ago, based on written evidence.)

Sex, however, is so deep-rooted that this has been pre-eminent in the thinking of people for just about all of human history. Men more often seek multiple sexual ‘partners’and men tend to seek young women as sexual partners; built into men’s psyche is the unconscious drive for breeding. Since males are physically stronger, the females were subject to their attitudes which often proved domineering and selfish. There are societies, even today, where many men ‘believe’, often under the guise of religion, that girls are eligible for ‘arranged marriage’ at the onset of puberty. Sex is also linked inextricably to humans’ potential for violence and war. Such is this propensity that men in the conquering army may rape the captured women and girls as ‘spoils of war’; such callous and primordial behaviour is indeed happening in current conflicts.

Women are generally regarded as the nurturing gender yet they too are capable of selfishness and violence. Like men, their behaviour is often unconsciously connected to sex in some form. The need to protect children, desire for respect, love, possessions and territory, can all be linked to our basic drive for reproductive potential.

We are a result of our evolution. Today, men and women are still incredibly aware of their sexual urges. It is only recently that many societies have instituted legal respect and protection for girls and women. In ancient societies there would also have been some men who had evolved higher level abilities and were able to appreciate that women merited respect. Men can experience profound love and empathy while at the same time remaining masculine.

The central importance of sex applies to every plant and animal on the planet. This includes the essential relationship between so many plants and bees – although this is woefully unappreciated by today’s society. Hence the themes of sex, honey and survival are related within this tale of passion, love and murder.

Honey-hunting represents one of man’s earliest pursuits and continues to this day in many countries. Ancient cave paintings depict determined looking figures risking their lives to extract honey from precarious cliff-side bee colonies. There is evidence that humans have been farming bees for wax and honey since the Stone Age where beeswax has been found on pottery fragments dating as far back as 8,500 years around the Mediterranean; beeswax may have been used for ritual, cosmetic and medicinal purposes, and to waterproof porous ceramic vessels.

For millennia honey has had a special place in our culture and society. Honeybees accompanied Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and during the mythical Golden Age honey dripped from trees like rain water. In ancient Egypt taxes could be paid in honey, and honey found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs has been tasted by archaeologists and found edible. After his death, Alexander the Great’s body was preserved for hundreds of years in a gold sarcophagus filled with honey.

Honey was an energy-rich food, prized for its taste and symbolism. It was easily portable and long-lasting which means that it would have been a valuable aid when mankind was on the move, during hunting or warfare, and when migrating on land and sea. Honey was an important part of the diet for many cultures and it was frequently used as a medical aid.

Many cultures regarded honey as a sacred substance which should be the first food to touch the palate of the new-born baby. Cicero described how bees built a honeycomb in the mouth of the infant Plato, which predicted the singular sweetness of his discourses and his future eloquence.

Human civilization blossomed in Asia, around the Mediterranean, and in other regions about 2,500 years ago. There were great thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Greece, and Confucius in China. Ancient Egypt was soon to be conquered by Alexander the Great. Arts and literature were developing independently across the world. The Bronze Age was well-established and some cultures had sea-going vessels. All these ancient societies understood implicitly that the highly regarded resources of honey and wax were produced by bees. This novel is set during this period in history.

Even in today’s technological age, it is still true that most people are aware that honey is made by bees, although that association is becoming more tenuous. Honey is that idea of syrupy sweetness, a term of endearment, and wistfully in the half-forgotten phrase the land of milk and honey. The word honey is added to so many food descriptions and whenever it is convenient to add some sort of sweetener to a phrase. Sadly, for many of us honey itself appears to have become just a minor commodity in a plastic bottle on a supermarket shelf.

The story of honey and the bees is linked to our own human story. For millions of years nature has always provided plenty of pollinators to do the vital job of pollinating the plants on which we depend, but this is often no longer the case.

In tropical regions such as south-east Asia, the Indonesian and the Philippine archipelagos, three quarters of the plant species rely to some extent on pollination by bees and other creatures. Vietnam has a rural society that is generally aware of the role of bees and beekeeping, resulting in many bee colonies and a good pollination environment which then results in high agricultural yields for fruit crops. However, in other tropical Pacific regions the story is dramatically different, where the loss of bee colonies is resulting in profound environmental and agricultural damage.

A new reality is that in some countries, most of the ‘honey’ on the supermarket shelves is now adulterated in some way, or simply not made by bees at all but by fraudsters in vats which convert sucrose sugar into a honey-like syrup. In the Philippines and in some other countries thousands of tons of factory-made fake honey is sold in the supermarkets, and bought by many millions of innocent consumers. This fraudulent honey business makes money for the unscrupulous, which can include corrupt officials.

The abuse of such a special and complex substance as honey is connected to the loss of the bee pollinators and the consequent negative impacts on our agricultural and natural environment. Arguably, this has largely occurred because so many people have lost their vital connection with nature.

In the Philippines studies are showing that probably the majority of the native bee colonies have been destroyed by humans in the last couple of decades. Most of the population, and even many farmers and their ‘advisors’, continue to remain disastrously unaware of the role of bees and pollination. This has resulted in the Asian honeybees having been recklessly removed from about a half of the land area, while stingless bees are also in decline.

Many small Philippine islands have already completely lost their colonies of wild honeybees, and even larger islands are on course to lose their remaining honeybee populations unless awareness and attitudes improve. Largely due to insufficient pollination the yields and production of many fruit crops such as mango, and crops such as coffee and cotton have been in perpetual decline over the past decade..

This decline in productivity is leading to the grubbing up of trees, the erosion of soils and consequent damage to coral reefs and fisheries. Such degradation can only result in the further loss of income and jobs.

A great many Philippine college graduates simply do not know about pollination, or do not know that bees are ‘vegetarian’ and pollinate plants. That such a topic has been so poorly communicated in the school system is indeed one of the key issues that have to be addressed. Another issue is the misuse of chemicals contributing to Colony Collapse Disorder. The continuing depopulation of the native bees, caused largely by ignorance of the biology and reckless honey-hunting is resulting in increasing ecological and economic damage.

Constructive information to help tackle the pollination crisis in the Philippines is available (www.beephilippines.info) but the farming communities that most need this information are not able to access it. On the whole, government officials and educators who can access the information are either not aware of it, do not grasp the concepts, ignore it, or are not sufficiently motivated to help promulgate the information. Meanwhile, the unthinking destruction of native bee colonies continues, when instead with a little knowledge and a change of attitude the nation could secure more crops, jobs and money plus an improved environment for large populations that desperately it.

In summary, the irresponsible destruction of such an essential resource is creating a silent but expanding disaster, affecting the balance of life on our planet and increasing the danger to our own survival.

 

From a philosophical perspective…

Plato lived 2,400 years ago, and this was his reaction to ‘the written word’..

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”

Napoleon Bonaparte said..

“If I had to choose a religion, the sun as the universal giver of life would be my god.”

“There are only two powers in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”

Albert Einstein is credited with saying..

“If bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would have only four years left to live.”

Gautama Buddha said..

“There is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred, there is no snare like folly, there is no torrent like greed.”

Modern science has revealed that we are all made from stardust. Our nearest star, our one and only sun, was revered with a divine status by a great many cultures, including those in the tropical Pacific; the power for all plant and animal life on Earth derives from our sun.

This novel portrays a realistic natural world as it would have been 2,500 years ago, depicting the relationship humans had with their environment. But no longer are there clear skies and now we are the innumerable animals, calling, thrumming and flicking; it is us humans who have already destroyed much of the Earth’s natural abundance.

Stud ies of the Pacific Ocean indicate a drastic 80% decline in fish since the Kon Tiki expedition in 1947..

 

There is a worldwide crisis in fisheries, while over the same period there has been a ‘rise of slime’ with problematic levels of bacteria, algae and jellyfish. In addition, the many millions of tons of plastic garbage in the oceans is symptomatic of our consumer throwaway society – by 2050 it is predicted that by weight there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish!

N ow sea turtles are rarely spotted in Likupang bay, the corals are threatened and mining on Bangka Island has started. Many of the animals and plants once common are now endangered. The WWF Living Planet reports that analysis of 14,000 populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles had declined 60% on average of the past 40 years, and extinction rates are running at 100 times its natural level. We are a generation who will have to explain to our children why we are eliminating those wonderful animals that are so much a part of every child’s imagination, and of so many nursery stories.

The pollination crisis, the fisheries crisis and the incipient extinction crisis are but three of many crises we have brought on ourselves. The human population and its material demands are ever increasing, sucking the life blood out of our only inhabitable planet, and generating multiple other modern ailments such as traffic congestion, health-wrecking air quality, obesity and type 2 diabetes. And so the devastation continues as humans pursue their greed with unsustainable consumption and pollution.

Such an all-pervasive plundering is wrought by a ravenous modern humanity which is increasingly divorced from the natural environment in which we evolved. Much of our society is afflicted with the syndrome: It may not be the right thing to do but if I don’t do it somebody else will. Or our consciences might seek the justification: There are other people who will sort out this threat for me, so I can just carry on regardless. And there are many who just don’t care, have given up, or are burying their heads in the sand.

It seems that, as Plato predicted, forgetfulness has been implanted in our souls, our spirits. We are so far removed from our origins that we can no longer remember from within ourselves why we behave the way we do. And in behaving the way we do, we have forgotten our dependence on nature and the environment.

It is almost as if some have forgotten our dependence on Earth. Spending astronomical wealth on trying to inhabit Mars is futile – there is no Plan B or ‘Planet B’. We have to look after this one first, and the challenge here is more than big enough. The folly of ignoring facts such as the limits to material growth and global warming will generate an inevitable negative result, no matter what the newly elected President Trump says.

Unless we come to our senses and take decisive action, this suicidal folly will surely ensnare the human race and condemn our much loved children to a horrendous future. To sustain the thin biosphere on this lonely planet we have to truly understand the facts and then take responsibility.

However, the media is increasingly fixated on unrealistic fantasy whilst trying to forget the uncomfortable reality, allowing us to carry on sleep-walking into oblivion. But we desperately need to understand what the facts actually are so that we can learn to adapt before it’s too late. Improved public awareness is needed of the critical issues facing humanity and how we can take action on an individual and community scale, including actions to reduce, reuse and recycle.

The Tropical Sun is a saga of passion and the struggle for survival, where the Likupang tribe strives for deliverance from an oppressive threat. It is an attempt at a realistic but ‘entertaining’ exploration of the nature of humanity. It was inspired by love for the incredible natural world we inherited, and a world needed for our childrens survival. In the story Bandri and his tribe regarded nature and their environment as the spirit of Mother Earth. They regarded their souls as spirits, using the term also for passion – semangat, and had derived a holistic approach to their place within nature. Hopefully, such perspectives might help to reorientate attention towards our fundamental human needs.

The question we are left with is: Can our humane passion for life conquer the sword of hatred, folly and greed that is killing Mother Earth, and ultimately threatening to kill us?

 

Author’s Note

 

This is a brief rendition of two journeys: a motorbike ride and the writing of this novel.

On 17th October 2014 I attended a coconut farmers meeting which catalyzed a frustrated trip the following day to the local municipal mayor’s office in a town called Zamboanguita. My request for more consideration to be given to the town’s residents was met with total rejection by the then mayor, who ordered me in no uncertain terms to get out of his office as he repeated “That’s the way I do things – I don’t care!”

Given the sometimes volatile nature of politics in the Philippines, I felt it wise to cool off and rode my motorbike to the City of Dumaguete, where I could find an internet café in the shopping mall. There I wrote the post (http://beephilippines.info/small-coconut-farmers-meeting), avoiding any mention of the crass neglect that many self-seeking bureaucrats inflict on the population they are meant to serve. Filled with despair for the future of the environment and the deserving majority, I left the mall as it closed, emerging into the darkness of the evening.

On the horizon storm clouds approached, marked by lightning flashes. Donning my bike helmet, I rode back towards Zamboanguita and into the storm. Riding a motorbike on inadequate roads and in crazy traffic while avoiding the stray dogs is usually tricky, but doing it at night in a thunderstorm requires concentration.

Focus on the road seemed to be helped by allowing my mind to run over a simple story about the early human settlers in the Pacific islands, which sprang from the apparent futility of trying to convey ecological fundamentals to a modern society increasingly detached from nature and obsessed by media fantasy. As I rode, the story took on a life of its own, such that I forgot my own destination, riding straight past our place and onwards into the night.

Riding right through Zamboanguita, the road continued between coconut palms, by paddy fields, over a river, up and down hills, around bends, through villages, and on into the night. No traffic appeared on the road now and I guessed that I must be well past wherever I had intended to go. Looking down at the petrol gauge it was on empty, and I was lost. Wherever I was, it was dark and unlit, unknown and ominous. I stopped.

I expected the bike to stutter and fail as I re-started, but the remaining fumes allowed me to ride a little further, around a corner where I discovered an open petrol station, even though it was three in the morning. Standing between the two pumps, lit by a bright light from above, was a young man, tall, slim, athletic, and handsome, in basketball attire. With great politeness he filled my tank, and declined a tip.

The rain stopped, and the balmy night-air dried my shorts and tee-shirt as I rode homewards. In my mind a narrative had been created of generations past, of peoples who braved and survived forgotten journeys far more perilous. The skies brightened and parents walked with their children to early morning church services. Riding down the hill towards the river I wondered why the raindrops had not evaporated from my visor, but reaching up I realized that the drops had fallen onto the visor from inside.

In Zamboanguita, a relative waved me down and asked where I had been – apparently people were worried. In the bright morning sunlight, when I rode up the drive between the coconut palms, my father-in-law was pumping water surrounded by orange cosmos, and my mother-in-law was cooking breakfast. “Where have you been all night?!”

Confirming their supposition that I was going through some sort of meltdown, I started chuckling – one of those chuckles that is difficult to stop. “Oh God,” I replied. “I’ve never tried writing a novel before.”

The first draft called ‘Spirit of the Sun’ was boring and passive, burdened with a writing style borne from academic study. My family believed that I should be spending the time more profitably, and sometimes so did I. But writing a book is a journey in itself, and so, little by little, the novel progressed, drawing closer to its imagined destination.

 

My young son, Philippe, inspired me always and so the author is named in his honour.

J. S. Wright. October 2016


The Tropical Sun - Belief, Love and Hate

Based on historical evidence this epic story is set in the sun-drenched, tropical Pacific, during the Bronze Age 2,500 years ago. A clash between the Malay and Javanese civilizations threaten the very existence of the small Likupang tribe. Book One unfolds the dangerous friction between the Malay Likupang tribe and a neighbouring Javanese tribe. Love and the desire for sex, family, security and status challenge the men and the women of the Likupang tribe, compelling them to change their community and develop new ideas. Book Two follows the powerful emotions of love and desire as they are unleashed. The severe tensions between the two tribes reach breaking point when passions and forces beyond their control are likely to thrust them all into devastating savagery. The Likupang tribe are driven to take drastic actions that will have unforeseen ramifications. The dramatic events of mystery, suspense, romance, pleasure, action and violent strife encompass tribal culture and beliefs, the use of bronze, the pursuit of honey hunting and the crucial role of their natural surroundings. The legend of the tribe and their adventurous land and sea journeys are based on geographical and scientific facts, plus the available historical evidence. Accounts of the natural ecology, climatic and geological features are completely realistic. Bronze implements, weapons, artifacts, boats and buildings are based on genuine examples from that time and place. Ancient tribal societies were capable of deep, sensitive, human relationships within a caring and loving family environment. Yet, tribal societies also battled with issues such as polygamy, the abduction of girls, forced marriage, abuse, intimidation and murder. An elemental reason for war among tribal societies is the struggle by the males for access to the females, and the desire of the females for suitable males who can offer love and security. This holistic novel is narrated from both male and female perspectives, weaving together the many strands of passion: yearning, lust, love, joy and sex, together with fear, loss, hate, moral conviction, rage and lethal conflict.

  • ISBN: 9781370278992
  • Author: J. S. Philippe
  • Published: 2016-11-27 13:20:25
  • Words: 97355
The Tropical Sun - Belief, Love and Hate The Tropical Sun - Belief, Love and Hate