It is a cliché, but
an absolutely valid cliché, to refer to Indonesia as a “ring of
fire” for the archipelago was born out of the conflagration of
its volcanoes, and its land continues to thrive and shudder atop
the planet’s furnace. But Indonesians call their nation “tanah
air,” the “earth-water,” for they live as well at the mercy and
the mercilessness of the seas, the rains, the rivers, and the lakes
that collaborate with their thousands of volcanic islands.
Lake Rawa Pening, the
largest lake on the island of Java, was once, the story goes, a
great valley. At its center, in the ancient days, a large village
rose and fell with the fluctuations of earth and water.
One year, indeed, the
season was so dry that most of the wild animals on which the villagers
depended for their food had either scattered or been desiccated
into the dust that swirled within the valley. Without much optimism,
therefore, a hunting party of the village men set out one dawn
to find what prey they could to set upon the table at that evening’s
annual circumcision banquet, the ceremonial meal celebrating the
rite-of-passage through which twelve-year-old boys became men and
so assured the village its future.
“Does the village have
a future?” wondered Antok whose own stomach growled with hunger.
His friend Junidi turned
to him and laughed at the sound.
“Does the village have
a future?” Antok said aloud.
“Of course it does.
You may not feel the future because you have no wife of your own
and no children. But, tonight my son becomes a man. He is the future.
He is my future.”
“Not without food. We
can not eat each other.”
“The animals will return.”
“I don’t know,” said
Antok. “Why don’t we make our way to the coast and try our luck
in casting nets?”
“We are not fishermen.
I’d rather starve than smell like a fisherman. This is the day
we honor boys becoming hunters: men with knives, not with mesh.
I’m ashamed to hear my friend wish to fish.” Junidi smiled at his
own rhyme. “You might just as well wish to . . . swish. . . like
a lady in a sarong!” Junidi laughed uproariously, but Antok remained
“Here,” called Yudi,
the leader of the hunting party, “let us rest under this tree.” Junidi
made to put his arm around his friend and march together to their
comrades, but Antok shook of the embrace and headed in the opposite
“To the sea,” said Antok. “I’m
going to the sea. I may not be back tonight, but I’ll be back with
enough to feed the village by tomorrow.”
Junidi shook his head
and his hips while stretching with his hands an imaginary sarong. “Swish!” he
laughed and turned his back on Antok.
When Junidi joined the
other men beneath the shade of the tree, he complained of his hunger
and suggested they eat a few of the withered yams they had brought.
Yudi tossed a few to Junidi who unsheathed his knife and sliced
them roughly on the root of the tree. As he cut the vegetables,
a pool of red liquid formed beneath them.
“What is this?” he yelled.
The men gathered around.
“Quickly,” said Yudi, “take
away those pieces of yam.” Junidi did so. “Look, my friends. That
is no tree’s root. That is a python, the biggest I have ever seen.
We shall have food tonight! Kill the snake before it gets away!”
The snake didn’t have
a chance as scores of knives slit and cut the reptile into slivers—just
right for the grill and a banquet.
Beneath the tree, all
that remained of the snake, after the men had returned to the village,
were puddles of blood and a discarded head.
As the sun set, evening
breezes swept across the plain. The snake head quivered. But there
was more movement in that head than the winds could explain. It
rolled in circles and bounced in the air. It expanded and contracted
as if it breathed. Finally, when darkness insured no one could
see a miracle, a human hand crept out from inside the snake head.
The hand crawled along the dry dirt of the plain to lead into the
night an arm and a shoulder and then the torso and the whole body
of a young boy, quite normal except for the dry scales that flaked
from his skin and, of course, for the process of his generation.
Hungry and dazed from
his experience, the boy grabbed a sturdy branch to help him walk.
He followed the trail of the men who had killed the snake to their
village where candles and lanterns and grills cooking meat lit
up night. The circumcision party was a fabulous success. The boy
went from villager to villager asking for a piece of snake or a
slice of yam or, at least, a sip of palm wine. Some villagers just
stared, openmouthed, at the boy whose flaking skin made him look
like a furry monster. Others feared the boy, skinny as his own
walking stick, carried a plague. They yelled at him to go away.
The bravest grabbed their spears and poked and pushed the intruder
out of town. Seeing the distraught boy finally turn to leave the
village, Junidi yelled, “Every village must care for its own, stranger.
Go back to where you came from. Find your comfort there!”
On the outskirts of
the village, one young girl, alone in her parents’ house, heard
the boy approach. He asked once more for food and drink, but this
time, a villager answered with a smile. She waved the boy inside
and invited him to help himself from the few scraps on the kitchen
table. The girl sat away from the table in a corner of the kitchen. “This
was to be my dinner,” said the girl, “but it is too much for me.” She
put her hand over her mouth. “Anyway, I prefer company to an overstuffed
“You are not afraid?”
“Of what? A stranger?
Not a bit. I am a stranger in my own village.”
“How can that be? Why
are you not at the party?”
“Ha, you have not noticed
how strange I am?” The girl pointed to her eyes with her index
finger even as she kept her hand over her mouth. The boy saw a
strange white film covering the girl’s eyes.
“You are blind?”
“Yes. And I wouldn’t
be so popular even if I could see.”
“I have a harelip beneath
this hand. I am told it is terribly ugly. So ugly it can dull the
merriment of a party. Too ugly to show a gentle stranger.”
“What is you name?”
“Chitra. And yours?”
“Ah . . . Thon.”
“Ahthon. A strange name.”
“Not for a stranger.”
“Chitra, will you do
this stranger a strange favor?
“If I can.”
“I saw a large log outside
your hut. Why is it there?”
“The lesung? We pound
our rice in the long space carved out in the middle of the log.”
“I have to return to
the village. Will you wait for me—”
“Of course, I shall.”
“—in the lesung?”
“You mean, you want
me to sit in the lesung? As if it were a canoe?”
“Exactly. Will you?”
The girl felt her first
doubts that Ahthon was a decent man. “You won’t bring the children
back here to laugh at the ugly blind girl who thinks she’s floating
in the water.”
“Chitra, no, of course
not. You have fed me; we are friends. I do wish to join the village
entertainments, but you shall not be the butt of my joke. I promise,
Chitra. I shall return to you alone.” Ahthon gently embraced the
girl and walked her to the lesung. He kissed her on the forehead
and made his way, walking stick in hand, back to the village.
No one jeered the boy’s
return; the villagers slept, satisfied with their celebration,
there in their huts and here in the village square to which Ahthon
headed. In the center of the square, Ahthon planted his walking
stick and screwed it into the ground until it disappeared. As the
boy walked away, a gurgling sound accompanied tremors beneath the
surface of the earth. The boy didn’t turn to see the geyser gushing
from the point of his walking stick and flooding the entire basin
in which the village stood. Barely a scream was heard from villagers
who drowned, most of them, before they had a chance to awaken.
By the time Ahthon neared
Chitra’s hut, however, he had to swim to the lesung in which the
terrified girl floated. “A flash flood,” explained Ahthon. “Let
me push you to the shore.” Ahthon alternated propelling the log
and swimming back up to it until the lesung landed on a beach.
The boy led Chitra a
little ways to the tree under which, earlier in the day and in
another life, he had sought refuge from the blistering heat. Already,
thanks to the refreshment its roots received from the sudden lake,
the tree bore fruit. Ahthon picked some and presented it to Chitra.
Exhausted as the villagers had been from their revels, the girl
and boy slept, but safely, until, with morning, they were awakened
by the cries of a young man dragging a huge bag.
“Oh, my God, what is—what
has happened? How can this—where is my family? my friends? my home?” screamed
Antok. “Yesterday, this was a dustbowl. Now . . . how can this
Chitra and Ahthon held
on to the mourning Antok and shook their heads as did he.
“I am back from the
sea with these fish to feed the village,” Antok keened, “but there
is no village to feed.”
“Let us save the fish,” said
Ahthon. “Let us pour the bag into the lake.”
“No, no!” Antok grabbed
the bag. “They are almost dead already from my trek. And, besides,
they are sea fish; they will drown in fresh water.”
“This lake will not
harm them just because they are different, because they seem not
to belong. It will embrace them.” And before Antok could stop him,
Ahthon ripped open the bag and threw it far into the lake; its
fish swam quickly away, leaping, as they made the lake their new
Eventually, on the shores
of Lake Rawa Pening, the descendents of Ahthon and Chitra and of
Antok and a girl from the coast made a haven for themselves and
for many others seeking refuge from a cruel world.