‘there is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred’
J. S. Philippe
Text copyright © 2016 J.S. Philippe All Rights Reserved
Dedicated to my loving wife, Jhell,
& my amazing young son.
Table of Contents
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 – a story of passion and the struggle for survival.
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. Immersed in an intensely physical and natural world, these were tribal peoples driven by emotion, sensuality and spiritual beliefs.
A map of the island of Sulawesi, sometimes called Celebes.
The Pacific island of Sulawesi straddles the equator. Sulawesi has a rich human history, including the world’s oldest cave paintings created 40,000 years ago.
The Malay and Javanese civilizations had both settled on the island 2,500 years ago.
Places in northern Sulawesi, and the two principal mountains.
The island was covered in tropical rainforests during the Bronze Age.
The forests and seas contained an abundance of plants and animals.
Human settlements were mainly around the coast.
On the island of Sulawesi there are over 400 granite megaliths,
dating from 5,000 years ago.
The original purpose of the megaliths is unknown.
Bronze weapons and implements
A ceremonial bronze axe head, found in Sulawesi,
dated at about 2,500 years ago.
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.
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.
The Likupang tribesmen sat, hunched on logs beside a blazing fire, drinking, muttering and arguing amongst themselves. And from a house in the village, two young girls watched the nightly gathering.
“Apa yang anda fikir mereka bercakap tentang Mel?” – “What do you think they’re talking about Mel?” whispered Sukma.
Melati peered out through the narrow opening at the side of the bamboo shutter, studying the arm waving and gesticulations of the silhouettes in front of the flames. The men were not close enough for them to overhear, and the ceaseless murmur of crickets smothered the voices.
“Bot saya meng harapkan.” – “The boat I expect,” she whispered in reply, guessing.
“The boat,” groaned Sukma. “Always the boat.”
Beyond the fire, Melati glimpsed the line of phosphorescent surf at the bottom of the sandy beach and the pearly reflection of the moon on the bay waters. She drew in a sigh, and then looked down at the impish grin and bright eyes that gazed up at her through silky black hair lifting in the breeze.
“Sit down Mel,” urged Sukma, who twisted around and leapt off the bed to retrieve a wooden 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,” worried Melati as she sat down on the edge of the bed.
“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.
“Suk – careful!” Melati objected softly, squinting her eyes closed.
When her eyes opened again, they alighted on her best sarong, folded neatly in the storage hammock hanging from the roof joists, and then idly she started to inspect how the joists were held up by coconut wood, and how the nipa-leaf slats had been tied onto the rafters of split-bamboo. She looked down at the floor and stirred her toes in the loose sand over the pebbles, and decided that it had been boring having the room all to herself.
“I like sharing with you,” she said.
“Me too,” answered Sukma from behind, smiling broadly 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 them to twist into twine and rope for the boat.
“We keep making twine,” 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 said airily as she started to plait Melati’s hair
“Who will you try first?” asked Melati whimsically.
“You know which one!” chided Sukma.
The voices outside changed their tone.
“Sshh,” warned Melati. “The men are coming back!”
The girls hastily closed the shutter as quietly as they could, pushed down the wooden bolts to secure it, and then silently jumped back on their own beds. Not long after, they heard the opening of the front door of the house. As they lay there, they heard the steps outside the door to their room stop for a few moments, and then move on and enter the next room. Across the space between the beds the girls grinned at each other.
They waited as 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, Suk. Don’t let them hear you.”
The two girls carefully peeked out of the gaps in the side of the shutter as it was opened, then through the gap underneath, before clipping it again on the latches at the base. Two silhouettes remained beside the fire, but the others had left for their houses. One of the men got up and threw a few more coconut stalks on the fire which crackled greedily, breathing out flames and puffing the reassuring smell of wood smoke across on the sea breeze.
Now the girls peered 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; occasionally the light occluded as someone inside moved 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. The girls glanced at each other in 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, muffled 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.”
“That’s not drinking.”
“Sshh Suk – listen.”
Full of youthful curiosity and emotion untainted by experience, they strained their hearing, separating the intriguing noises in the next house from the ardent neep-neep rasp of the crickets. The faint 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!” replied 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!” urged Melati as she giggled back, trying to put a hand over Suk’s mouth.
Now something different seemed to be happening, and the girls renewed their focus. The creaking sounds had become more rhythmic – and so had the moans.
“What are they doing now?!” Sukma whispered in a bemused tone.
“I don’t know,” answered Melati, in strangely excited puzzlement.
The door to their room received three distinct taps. For a heartbeat the girls 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 firmly pushed down the two thick wooden bolts. Turning around, she glowered at Melati.
“You know the shutter must be locked at night!” she announced with a strident tone. “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:
“Saya suka anda Suk.” – “I love you Suk.”
“Saya suka anda Mel.”
Wiping away the tears, Melati lay on her back, looking up at the vaguely 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 hair loosely 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.
Silently she slipped the bolt across again, wondering 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 jus merah – ‘red juice’ had arrived. Melati was still learning that her body was obtaining a rhythm, like that of the moon. The red juice made her anxious. It made her aware of how her body had changed, and this morning she wrapped her sarong carefully, trying to disguise the points of her new breasts.
Sukma stirred and her long eyelashes fluttered but remained closed. She rolled onto her side facing the wall, still blissfully unfettered by such concerns. Not wanting to wake her friend, Melati crouched down and lightly touched Sukma’s hair.
“It wasn’t your fault Suk,” she murmured.
Tapping out the sand and any uninvited creatures, she 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 deftly 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 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 in the stillness of the morning air.
Melati’s gaze followed the smoke as it crawled lazily upwards. In the dark blue sky of the west there were a few remaining stars but the moon had disappeared. It was lighter blue in the east. 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. Bangka island seemed suspended, as if tethered by the thin line of the horizon between the darkness of the bay-waters and the brightening blue of the cloudless sky. 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:
“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?” she said.
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!” declared Melati. 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, suddenly she became self-conscious. Rarely did her father hug her like this – the hug felt strange. He smelt of smoked fish. She put her hands on his waist. He was muscular beneath his weathered skin. 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. She 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. Carefully she wrapped the fish in the leaf, using coconut twine to bind it together.
“You know about the new village at Bahoi?” he said quietly as he stood beside her at the hearth. “You know the tribe is Javanese?”
She looked up at him, realising now that his animals were people.
“They’re not Malay – they’re Java.”
“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 stick lying beside the hearth.
“You have to understand – we don’t know what they’re going to do.”
The manner in which he said this made her quiet. 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 blinking rapidly 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:
“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 chided with a lack of tact. “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.
“Now it won’t burn!” she said, turning as she stood up straight, facing her brother at last.
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 and pushed 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 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 watched 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 looked up and flashed a smug grin.
“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 that soon grew denser into the simmering jungle beyond.
The first rays of the Sun Spirit burst silently over the low hills to the east and all the colours exploded. 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 in the dazzling sunlight. 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. 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. She had pushed her greying hair up into a bunch.
Feeling the urge to repent for last night, without speaking she she 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 closely 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 mother,” she said quietly, and then pulled 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. Momentarily she put her lips silently 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 quietly 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 sparkle. 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 sparkling eyes.
“You should ask your father first,” suggested Melati. 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 said quietly 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 happily perched on a pile of wood in the shade of the work shed.
“It’s a change from making twine,” whispered Melati 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 gaps will let the air escape when the hot metal is poured into the mould,” explained Bandri as Melati began to pay more attention.
Fascinated, she watched as the two young men picked up a rectangular wooden frame which they placed carefully over the container with the model knife. 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,” said Bandri. “We have to get the mould open and take out the wood knife and bamboo strips to leave empty spaces – then put the mould back together again without breaking it.”
The girls watched as their brothers worked as a team. With extreme care, they clamped the two halves together again and stood the entire mould on end, so that the hole at the top was ready to receive the molten metal.
“The top part will be the shaft for the handle,” Bandri explained.
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, leaving slag on the top which Bandri scraped off.
“That’s the melted bronze,” Bandri said eventually with a triumphant flourish. “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 speedily poured the lava-like liquid into the mould. 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,” said Bandri 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?” Melati asked as seriously as she could manage, pushing Suk’s hand away behind her back. Sukma pinched her again. Melati’s face and body burned hotter still and she looked at the floor as Sukma giggled behind her.
“When it cools down,” answered Bandri with a chuckle.
“And then you get a knife?” asked Melati, looking up at her brother again and trying to understand.
Bandri nodded, smiling 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.
“The cast bronze will need some scraping clean, and then the handle can be bound onto the shaft,” explained her brother, showing them how the halves fitted together. “Then the blade is polished and sharpened.”
The engaging care with which her brother 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,” said Melati thoughtfully. “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 before straightaway asking:
“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. Suk’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 Suk’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.
“Too hot now,” he tutted, shaking his head. “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, stroking Sukma’s hair as she beamed up at her father. He rested one large hand lightly on his daughter’s slim shoulder.
“This is narra wood,” he told them, changing the subject. He hefted the bow shaft in one hand and with the other 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 shoulder and lifted it to her nose to smell.
“Jahat!” – “Nasty!” Melati screamed with exaggerated disgust while 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 quietly 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 looking up at Rukma.
“Oh no, not for me!” he replied, his eyes still screwed up with amusement as he brandished 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 single beeswax candle on the table.
“This is where you sit, Mel,” said Kasuma. “And this is where you sit, my daughter.”
The girls sat quietly 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 Sukma 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 their hair carefully. 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.”
Her mother eyes met hers and Melati realized that this meeting was something both their mothers had arranged. Her mother nodded slightly 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 juice came from, and suddenly it made sense. So that’s what it was for!
“Where I go to the toilet?!” asked Sukma.
Melati tried not to laugh, but Suk 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.
“There are three places – it’s the one 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.”
“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, and suddenly Melati felt awkward knowing what she knew now.
“Shall we go fishing then?” he asked blithely.
Sukma hesitated, as if she had forgotten all about it.
“Yes father,” she said quietly, 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 hulls of each boat were supported 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 placid today, yet the thrill of ploughing through the white spray made Melati scream with the pleasure of it. She saw that Sukma was bravely trying to paddle. Once through the breakers, 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, each about the size of Rukma’s table, hovering beneath them. Melati could make out the pattern on their 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 that 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 yard 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. Then he turned to pull the boat with its two occupants up out of the water. So at least he can smile, thought Melati.
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, indicating 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 inappropriately, 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 dark-green mangrove swamp where the river flowed out into the bay, and then left to where some 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.
“A face!” Melati uttered.
“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,” Melati 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 moment, 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!!”- “I want to speak with you!!” the man shouted across the river.
Rukma, who spoke Javanese the best, translated it to the others.
“Tuhan!” Praba cursed quietly. “Why do the dogs behave like this?”
“It’s their way,” Rukma said calmly. “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 said scornfully. “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.
Rukma nodded his head slowly, as if reluctantly accepting Praba’s terms.
“We will wait on this side of the river!” Rukma shouted. “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. 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 waist-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 two 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.
Wayan strode urgently towards the group walking back to the village. Rukma and Praba stopped to talk with him, while Agung and the girls walked on ahead.
“Bahoi want a meeting,” Rukma told him in a confidential tone.
“The Java were spying on the boat,” Praba whispered feverishly. “But they saw the girls!”
Wayan looked into Rukma’s face, searching for more.
“Our daughters were combing their hair by the boat,” said Rukma, putting his hand on Wayan’s 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,” decided 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 lengthy pause. “We must make sure these Java snakes can’t hide 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.
Above them, the face of Father Moon gazed down, splendid but unnoticed. The night thrummed and the surf beat a steady pulse.
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 anxiety and his heart filled with hatred towards the Java, but they had to try and discuss the problem without arguing and shouting at each other. He decided to state it as simply and as calmly 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 grunted.
“They’re our sisters – they’re too young!” Bandri said, even though everyone around the fire already knew this fact. “We – ”
“We all know that!” Praba snapped as he pacing 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!” claimed Andhika. “They take as many girls as they can!”
“Alright, alright!” Wayan interceded, thinking that at least their hatred of the Java united the tribe.
“They’re just dogs!” muttered Praba under his breath, kicking another stalk onto the fire.
“Stop it now! – 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 solemnly. “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 emphatically. “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 watched the smoke coiling upwards in freedom and tried 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 Andhy’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 Andhy was right – he and Rukma should have moved the tribe years ago. 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 diplomatically. “But life was good here.”
“We have to move,” muttered Agung.
“That’s why we’re building the boat!” stated Praba impatiently. “To take everyone to Manado!”
“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,” said Wayan calmly. “They only have small boats.”
“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 he didn’t believe in the bad spirits. He didn’t like to disagree with his son, but with a heavy heart Wayan persisted.
“And you know how bad the jungle is for children,” he added.
His eldest son breathed in deeply and sucked his lip.
“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 young 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, reinforcing the point.
Bandri sighed, and waved his arm vaguely 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 said 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 said emphatically.
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 Bahoi 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 other men. The fire crackled, gave out a few loud snaps, and collapsed inwards in a rustle of sparks. Wayan breathed in the muskiness of the wood smoke billowing around them, before it was carried away on the sea-breeze.
They were the best men to cover the distance in time. Wayan knew that, but part of him was greatly afraid of the risks they would be taking – indeed the risks Likupang would be taking.
Wayan stood by the low wall at the edge of the village, still staring into the forest where the two men were last seen – his eyes lingering on the leaves that had stopped moving where the path westward towards Manado began. 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. Wayan 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 deeply, 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 and feeling his back gently roast in the heat.
“Yes, using a boat is the best way,” agreed Rukma, sitting beside him.
“Alright – then everyone can see who’s coming,” Wayan said as he gazed at the two long shadows thrown out in front of them. “And our Sun Spirit will witness the meeting.”
“Yes, they cannot hide on the water,” agreed Rukma. “There’s too much distrust to do it on foot – it’s too easy for an ambush.”
“And our men must stay in the village to look after the families,” Wayan concluded, feeling thankful that at least they now had a plan.
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 both girls.. Or maybe it’s not about marriage at all?” 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. Even if they were only asking for one girl – it would be wrong.. And what else would they want?”
They lay silently for some moments.
“Please be careful not to anger them,” she whispered gently. “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. 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 deeply, 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; 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’ or ‘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 waves, rolling shorewards until they felt the gentle slope, then curling to lick the sand.
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.”
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!”
Praba approached his father:
“Puteri is making your favourite stew,” he 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, suddenly aware 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.
The old bamboo couch rocked unstably 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.
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.
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.”
Wayan pushed the pillow under his head – the couch creaked and 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 scolded him“Anda gergasi!” – “You ‘oaf’!”, told him to get out of her way, and then looked across at Wayan with a big grin.
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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.