21 March, 2020
Nyepi Eve Eve Eve
The shriveled pads of her fingertips lay open, concealing half of her big brother’s lifeless cheek. His pruned hands grasped her long braid, the red band shining above his thumbnail.
Dying within minutes of each other, the nurses didn’t want to separate them yet.
Murmurings of bahasa Balinese wafted through the cracks of the crumbling walls.
I yoked into the cavernous waiting room. The hospital’s main entrance purged bloody men and merciless heat onto the nape of my neck, while my ears burned from the hum of families yearning for a doctor to prescribe their future. Most sat in the chrome and plastic pew seats, facing down the nurse until she felt like a butterfly pinned to a board under a magnifying glass.
I figured most of the families would linger until nightfall before stumbling back to their compounds, still unsure of their fate.
The crinkly sound of cotton jerked me back into the cubicle.
The siblings’ father lay on a gurney half a meter away. A masked nurse pulled the sheet up over his head.
The rise of his wife’s chest stopped my heart. Did she know her babies were dead?
Liquid spilled onto the floor. The nurse bolted for the door. I scanned. The mattress pad succumbed, as fluids gushed out of her body.
Ibu, oh Ibu.
I redirected my iYoke, Izzie, and fell into a local Tunjung news feed.
“Thankfully, a NWI Inspection Agent is here to answer questions about this newest calamity. Pak?”
The reporter pivoted toward the Javanese man. The starched collar of his filthy uniform bit into the dark fold of his neck. I zoomed in on his name tag, but it was already blurred.
Behind the agent, a dead monkey lay draped into the subak.
He pushed his mask up to his hairline and said, “The water now poison. More family dead. I not know. Kemarin, no poison, today, d’sana poison.” He shrugged his shoulders and shuffled out of the frame of immersion.
The Australian pasty-skinned broadcaster crumpled her eyebrows as if on cue, “Thank you Pak, for that…enlightening information.”
Was she trying to mask the shallow data with theatrical confusion?
“The Tunjung family brings the tally of poison victims to ninety two, as the tiny island of Bali remains gripped in terror. Speculations of involvement by Indonesian forces was strongly denied by Jakarta officials close to the investigation-“
See what I mean? Who puts tally in the same sentence as poison? Journalists should be tested for empathy before they’re allowed to cast.
Clod in the platform heels favored by Southeast Asian women of power, the next reporter’s fancy up-do crowned her perky head in a leaky attempt to gain credence. But, her well-trained voice echoed clearly through the traffic along Mas Road.
“All four members of the family were quarantined from the moment of their arrival here at Mas Rumah Sakit. The Tunjung family brings the tally of poison victims to ninety two, as the tiny island of Bali remains gripped in terror-“
Same senseless script.
I scrolled through the images of each poison victim, using scarcity of time as an excuse to ignore their faces, and searched for wrinkled hands.
Every last one of them.
It’s not like the hands themselves protected me from the shock of death. No one wants to see a dead person. But a white person doesn’t look as different as a Balinese does.
Like they were never meant to die.
I zoned out of Izzie for the rest of the short ride to our local market. Mumma would have a hissy fit if she knew I’d been yoked in while driving.
I chiseled our scooter into a spot most Americans wouldn’t slink through. Before the parking attendant could throw his weight around, we climbed off and grabbed our limp shopping sacks. I hopped over a puddle, skirted a Bali dog, and bumped into Pak Komang.
“Mau ke mana?” he blurted the standard greeting, ‘where are you going?’.
“Pasar, untuk ayam,” I said, then grinned at my idiocy. We were already at the markets.
Komang smiled back, “Selamat pagi!”
Most of us bule could manage ‘Good morning’.
I scrambled to catch up with my grandmother as she traced a wobbly bee line for her favorite egg lady.
Mumma is itty bitty, completely hidden top to sides when she stands behind me. Rays fanned out from the corners of her eyes, creases etched her mouth…but, as always, she’ll be twenty-nine again this year. Motley hair fell to her waist, the bottom as thick and soft as the top. I wanted hair like my Mumma’s. And cojuldn’t figure out if that was suspicious or pathetic.
By the time I caught up with her, Mumma had moved along from her egg lady and on to the chicken stall.
“Silakan, ayam,” she said.
“Mumma, why are you doing that?”
“Tiga?” Ibu asked. She was so patient with my Mumma.
“Tidak, dua. Saya mau dua ayam!” No, two. I want two chicken.
Mumma and Ibu grinned at each other like five-year-olds.
“Do you have to look so proud of yourself?” I asked.
“Do you have to fuss at me for practicing my bahasa Indonesia? Perhaps for others it doesn’t come so easily,” Mumma replied.
“Can’t you practice when I’m not around? Ibu knows you want chicken. That’s all she sells. Head, or no head, feet, or no feet. Then hold up some fingers. What’s the big deal?”
Mumma ignored me as she dropped the paltry poultry into a cotton sack, and scanned some Dash directly from her iComm to Ibu’s old Nokia. Some stalls took multiple currencies but Ibu was paranoid.
We strolled past rickety tables mounded with shallots, carrots, tomatoes, mangos, peanuts (the real thing from trees), avocados, bananas, chilis, palm sugar (solid little half balls from being formed in a coconut husk), cucumber, lemongrass, coriander, salak, garlic, pandan, cabbage, tempe, and galangal…which I hate as much as ginger. I can’t even tell them apart. Both roots look like miniature human babies in need of a bath. I get the heebie jeebies when Mumma starts peeling them.
“Mumma, you just walked up to Pak and said, ‘amount’. How is he supposed to answer that?”
“Better than asking for a human Fanta!” she said, and I laughed in spite of my embarrassment.
Years ago, my Mother once asked for a Fanta soda at our local warung. When Ibu asked which one, my Mother kept insisting ‘orang’ instead of orange or purple. O-rang, as in a human being; as in, orang-utan is a person of the forest.
‘Silakan, dua Fanta orang.’ Please, two human sodas.
Giggling with the lore tucked safely in our hearts, we wound our way back toward the scooter.
“We should pick up some salak for Cece,” I said. My little sister loves her salak, but I never did-like fusing an apple with a banana. Calling it snakeskin fruit didn’t help, either.
Mumma grabbed my arm, “Shhh!”
I tuned in on the conversation behind her back and kept my eyes down.
“Did you catch what she said?” Mumma whispered under the hubbub.
“I’m not sure. The girl began in Indonesian, but Ibu is speaking Balinese.”
“I heard ‘bule’ but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking about us,” Mumma said.
“Shhhh. I’m trying to figure out if she-“
Bule directly translates to albino, and is tossed at foreigners as an insult or an endearment, depending.
Buh-lay. We heard it again. Dan gila. They were talking about a crazy white man. And diarrhea. Too much…dan cepat cepat. Quick diarrhea? Esh! Toxic? Or did she say poison? Tidak alam. Not natural. The body…quickly…no water. What?
“Mumma, come on. Walk and talk. Walk and weave and talk.”
When we’d popped back outside the pasar, I continued, “She said the local police report a white man hanging around the subak before the Tunjung deaths, acting crazy, or weird.”
“Acting weird? What does that mean?” Mumma asked.
“I don’t know. I’m repeating what I can—“
“Maaf, go ahead.”
“After the girl repeated that the police suspected a bule, she teased her Nanek for blaming the magnetism in the earth for all the dead bodies’ unnatural water loss.”
“You’re kidding?” Mumma said.
“I know it sounds silly, but I’m pretty sure I have the words right-“
My grandmother looked like she knew what they were talking about. “But what does that have to do with dumping poison in the subak?”
I stopped, stooped, and faced her elfin self, “I don’t know. But this isn’t the time or the place for questions.”
Mumma’s eyes took on that faraway look usually reserved for when she smoked her pipe.
Her feet grew roots, her body wobbling on the spot as her mind sprung into action.
“Come on, Mumma, jalan-jalan. Now, please.”
We were, after all, bule. And ninety two people were dead. They weren’t even cremated yet.
Juggling our three kilos of rice, once again I wished I could plop it on top of my head and sashay along as if it were a fashion statement.
Back at our scooter, I hung our sacks above the floorboard and grabbed our helmets off the handle bars. Mumma handed our parking man 1000rp as he pulled out our scooter, then held it steady for her to climb on. I flung my leg through and grabbed the hand brake from him, zipping away without clasping my helmet strap.
I skittled around a Bali dog slumbering smack dab in the middle of the road. Half feral, half tame, and crucially cunning, it reminded me of a small Australian dingo.
I skirted a food cart and bumped up onto the footpath outside the orchid toko, but didn’t slow down until I’d swerved back onto the road.
The flowers smelled divine. But Bali? Bali kind of stinks…it smells funny to me, it’s unfamiliar, it’s not home.
Smell is the only sense we can’t capture and hold on to, like we can a sight or a sound. Those we can record.
But we can’t save a smell. I wonder if that’s why odors make us feel so deeply, so far back in time? There’s no memory to serve up a numbing repetition.
Mumma said that you can never go home. For me, home was a smell. Home was the ancient magnolia tree outside my second story bedroom window. When the white flowers bloomed, their perfume leaked in through the dusty window screens and soothed my curious mind.
If Mother was my most comforting smell, that magnolia tree was my most constant.
Back then, the smell of its flower burst my brain open.
The tree’s under canopy was too hard to walk on barefoot. So when I forgot to wear shoes, I crawled on my hands and knees to spread out the pressure. Once I touched the seed pods and dead leaves, the acrid pollen burst up, clung to my eyelashes, and rushed to the back of my throat. But after the initial bitter bite, a magical life endured up under there. Inside her outer branches, each new root popping up was its own baby tree, an entire forest of new trees inside my big mama tree.
Rough and sturdy, the branches made for easy, high climbing. The pollen settled below, and I could perch in a cloud of sweetness, the flower blossoms bigger than my Daddy’s head.
I felt safe, my mind free to wander-the last time I remember resting inside my own head and all its questions.
Nowadays, I’m haunted until the answers crowd in.
But Mumma is right. If I ever get back to South Carolina, everything will look different, smaller, newer, tighter. But the smell? It will still smell of home, of magnolias, of my Mother. The smell will still churn the loamy soil, still smother the humid air.
There are no Southern magnolia trees in Bali. And I’m never going home. All I want is a smell, the comforting smell of innocence.
“Elizabeth, watch where you’re going!” Mumma yelled, then, “Permisi, Pak!” to the man I nearly mowed down.
The streets do not belong to the motorist. They belong to everyone and everything that needs to get from one point to another: cars, bicycles, families, carts, scooters, walkers, lorries, buses, babies, dogs and the ever portentous tourists.
“Pay attention, sweetie! Were you iYoking?” Mumma asked from her pillioned perch. I sniggered so hard I almost lost my balance.
“No, Mumma, and it’s not ‘I-Yoking’. That’s the machine part. It’s called yoking, or yoked in-“
“Why not? Nouns turn into verbs everyday,” Mumma said.
“You’re right, the iYoke is different enough to deserve it’s very own verb.”
“I can’t understand what all the fuss is about,” Mumma’s petulant plea pierced through my helmet at the speed we poked along Mas road.
I felt the patches of potholes and sensed the stretches where children popped out onto the main road, merging with the traffic like geese on migration. I knew this asphalt better than the pattern of my sarong. I knew its twists and dips, its rivers during the rainy season, it’s short-cuts during a ceremony. And with less than a week until Nyepi, the Hindu New Year, Jalan Raya Mas was stuffed with ripening traffic.
“The iYoke,” I thought, “well it’s kind of like your iComm, sort of. But more powerful, wearable-“
“What’s so special about that? Pinning it on your head doesn’t make it unique. They’ve been doing that for years.” Mumma said.
“-miniaturized, voice activated-“
“How do you control it? It looks like a bobby pin on steroids.“
“It is! That’s a great way to look at it. This pin I put in my hair in the morning connects with me whenever I tell it to. Otherwise, it’s off. Completely. There isn’t even a backup power source.”
“How do you surf the web?”
“Well, we don’t really ‘surf the web’ anymore, but I do blink around-“
“Blink?” she asked.
“Yep, thats one of the easier ways to tell her what I want.”
“Her?” Mumma asked.
“-But what’s really different from your iComm is immersion. I can zoom into any yoke and sense it, a bit like being inside a hologram.”
“All the time? Sounds like overkill.”
“Yes ma’am…current chat, or a website, or Steem, a blockchain, I’m all sensed in it. You just hear canned audio and see two dimensional lights.”
“Fancy schmancy for 2020, but I still don’t get all the hoopla. Are you iYoking while you drive us down the road?”
I knew that’d be her first concern.
“No ma’am, she adjusts to all the senses; only sight, or just sound and touch, or-”
“How do you turn it on?” she asked.
“That’s the tricky part. It took me almost a day to get there.”
“Even Cole has trouble with it. Gede has the hang of it, though; and Cece picked it up like it was peeling salak.”
“Where’s the power button?”
“There isn’t one.” I said.
“That was the main purpose in its development. The surveillance fiasco created so much fear. The security of the iYoke spawned a revolution.”
Esh, I sounded like the launch ad.
“How do you turn it on?” Mumma growled, as if I’d missed the question.
“You have to think it on, Mumma, each one has a unique-“
“Did you say you ‘think on’ a bobby pin in your hair? Have you been puffing on my pipe?”
“No Mumma, don’t be silly.”
“I’m not being silly, you are! You think it on? What am I missing here?”
Mumma’s focus tickled the nape of my neck. A Bali dog yawned as we zipped by. I waved to Ibu in the RR Warung. I thought a bit more. It was hard to explain what I hardly understood.
“It’s a connection…if you could train your brain, eyeballs, and hands to obey your thoughts-“
“And what do you think yoga is all about, pray tell?”
Uh oh, I’d crossed a line with that one. Her voice hitched up a notch. I looked at her in my side mirror.
“Sorry, Mumma. You’re right. I can teach you to use an iYoke. I’ve seen some old Balinese men wearing them-“
Lips down, arms crossed, if she scootched back any further she’d bounce right off.
“No, not old! I didn’t mean to say old, I meant…not like Cece.”
Lame, Elizabeth, lame.
“Old. Not able to learn new tricks. Give me the damn thing,” she said.
“Lose the lazy language!” Giggling, I threw our family mantra back in her face.
“Persnickety, parsimonious people particularly piss me off!”
Mercy, she’s good.
“No iYoking on the scooter. I’ll show you when we get home, Mumma.”
“Well, cepat cepat,” she squealed.
*****if you enjoyed chapter one of Campaka, please upvote, resteem or follow if you're interested in chapter two! the completed novel is in re re re edit and I'm excited about sharing it with Steemians in its entirety. Feedback, artwork, resteems, suggestions and upvotes greatly appreciated!