Everything burns, one way or the other.
I can’t forget the time I saw stars in the ocean.
When I was a kid, we lived in Papua, Indonesia. I’d homeschooled up in the Baliem Valley for a year, and my parents decided to send me to the coast, to Sentani, to take my SATs and go on the intense 2 week excursion that was to come. I was a round, fudgy teenager at the time, and I played too many games and stayed holed up in my room smelling the sweet spices that would drift in on the wind in Wamena. I was sheltered, even in this remote wonderful place, and I didn’t get out much. I was basically Bilbo Baggins.
The night the entire high school left for our Outdoor Education foray, we boarded a large passenger freight in Jayapura. I got very seasick. After an overnight voyage, we stayed in Nabire, my childhood home, nestled in the crook of the bird’s neck. I slept on the floor of my childhood beach house and saw the school where I’d gone in 4th grade much changed: a single school house, air conditioned, overflowing with books and toys. We flew up to Yapen Island the next morning, then took a 4 hour bus up winding roads to a remote point inland, then hiked two hours to the site of the village, Warironi.
The villagers all greeted us with a celebratory dance, took our feet and had us smash a ritual plate with crossed machetes and palm branches. They were dark skinned with pearly teeth, and their voices were beautiful. Every one of the 40 kids in our group was carried over this ritual threshold and welcomed in.
We stayed in an unfinished cement church with mosquito nets strung up on tarps, and were divided into groups. We sang and talked by lamplight most nights, and dug and shat in a pit out back. The river ten minutes away was where we drew our water and did our laundry and bathed. The stars overhead were crystalline, and the jungle was on our doorstep.
The school engaged in different projects: building a cistern for a remote village, teaching VBS to the kids, learning how to make Papaeda and how to harvest cocoa. The villagers would pick bundles of cocoa fruit and leave them drying on long white and blue tarps in the sun, letting the fruit dessicate in the heat to leave just the cacao seeds we prize so much for making chocolate.
It was magical, and I was so uncomfortable. I hoped—secretly—I’d shed my baby fat and come back from the jungle looking markedly more badass, but of course that didn’t happen. On the way back, I did end up contracting measles, which kept me bedridden for two weeks while I watched pirated James Bond films back in Wamena, slowly gaining back any weight I might’ve lost.
We took a boat out across the waves one night, hiked up a steep incline and looked down into a bottomless pit. There was a full underground kingdom down below, filled with shivering bats. The kids stepped up to the edge and looked down, afraid the rock would give. I stayed at the back. Our guide led us down a pathway through the winding jungle to a secret entrance and led us inside. Within the cave were mounds of grey guano, smelling of spoiled yogurt. Sightless white insects scuttled over the dunes of refuse, and overhead, the ceiling was covered in coiled wings, chittering. Some of our friends laid down in the guano and made guano angels, and complained of the stink all the way back to the boats later on.
As we came back to the docks in our outrigger boats, the sun set and I looked beneath us. The water was filled with shimmering bioluminescent algae, but the effect was constellations: living stars spread out in a panoply beneath us. I felt small and in awe in that moment.
When we reached the docks, the tide had gone out, and a good quarter mile of mudded salt flats stood between us and dry land. Everyone in the boats disembarked, and we sloshed and walked our way to shore. Every step sunk my legs in 3 feet deep and sucked the sandals off of my feet. Midway to shore, A sharp, biting pain tore through my right foot, and I knew I’d snagged my foot on a piece of glass or sharp coral. The salt in the mud invaded the wound, stinging and cauterizing it. I walked gingerly to shore and pulled myself up, limping, to examine my foot in the dark. Jim, a classmate, twin with large bottlecap glasses, shone his light on it. A long angry red cut ran laterally from the back of my foot to my big toe.
“Don’t walk on it if you can help it,” a teacher told me.
We walked an hour and a half back to the church, and I went the whole way with my right foot on the tip of the toe. I’d look around to the silent forest, loud with animals and sweet with decaying fruit, and then up to the stars overhead. I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming. This is really happening, I told myself over and over, and then prayed, and then looked up to the stars again. Despite the pain, it was really one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
I once knew a philosopher
who contemplated seeds
so long he took root
and grew to impossible heights.
As the seasons changed, his hues
turned from green to brown
and the hair fell from his head
in piles around his trunk.
He dropped a buckeye, and I picked it up,
turned it over, gave it a bite to make
sure it was real. It was hard and knotty
like his face. And though I saw
he was old now, he seemed to be smiling
but it was just a trick of wood.
After the last piece I got published with Kill Screen magazine and my blog-wise writeup, I had a lot of pent-up emotional energy about my childhood and upbringing, and a lot of forlorn / angst / beautiful swirling around in my head.
Korkit saddled his fast flying horse and escaped from Death. But, no matter where he went, the Angel of Death Azrael and his gravediggers followed, unrelenting in their pursuit. Although sometimes, Azrael’s feelings of pity were awakened, so that even when he came nearby he could not take Korkit’s soul. One day, the dastardly angel constructed an ornate golden box in which to keep the soul of his treasured mark Korkit. Korkit knew the day would come he would die, yet he did his utmost to thwart fate.
Originally, Asan was simply Asan Effendi. He was very rich. One day, all the good and wealthy people met to discuss the latest gossip. "I heard one fisherman caught an obscenely large fish from the river," said one. After hearing the story of the exceptional fish, Asan went to the river to see this strange catch himself. At the river, he found several fishermen manning two nets. The famous and wise poet Atakti, also a seer, directed their movements. As Asan approached, the fishermen pulled the net ashore, brimming with fish.
In those days, there was a famous sage who had seven sons and one daughter. After the girl grew older, she grew lonely and told her brothers, "I need to get married. Please help me!" And so, following the natural logic of young and spirited men, the seven brothers made her a box of metal. Its outside was a fine silver design of suns and dragons, while the inside was furnished with lavish cushions, on which their sister might sit. After they had seated their proud sister inside comfortably, they sealed the box and sent it floating down the river.
What I didn't write about in my latest Kill Screen article was the significant role this Saturday morning ritual played into my relationship with my dad. I grew up loving him from a distance, sometimes closer, sometimes scared of him, often in awe, but the fact was that he worked the hard shift as a pilot, and his time was often spent providing for his family. Up until I turned 17, I'd never spent regular, significant time with him.
But I think we're both creatures of habit. "Whenever I go to a different city, I always try out their Rueben sandwiches," he told me recently. When I get into an airport, I buy myself a small black coffee and stare at it miserably while waiting for the gate to open. I also try to put on my best resting bitch face to discourage anyone from talking to me. It's nice not talking to anybody at eleven in the morning.
I always felt cheated for people not letting me be myself. When I was five, my parents dressed me up in a papery blue shirt and neat kakhi shorts and took me to church. I could handle the first hour. I sang in the choir and watched Bible characters move around on the felt boards in Sunday school . . .