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Almost-Dreams

by: Lindsay Maples

           On the morning the wave destroyed Betu Monga, Jaya dreamt he was walking across the palm trees under the moonlight. He could see the ground far below the trees as he passed above dirt and sand and thatched roofs, but the fronds were firm as grass. Jaya reached below him and picked a coconut, and it opened easily between his fingers. After he had drunk its sweet water, he threw the two halves into the sky, where they stuck between the stars and glowed white. And then something shook the tree and Jaya was falling, falling, till he awoke in his bed in a sweat, and it seemed like the room was moving around him.
            But as he sat up, the world became still. The night was not yet through; the three-quarter moon was hanging among the sparse palms sprinkled between the houses, though the sky was brightening by the minute. Jaya waited till the sun began to show its face before he walked to the edge of the village that bordered the water, where Simorangkir lived.
            On days when he did not have school, Jaya’s father allowed him to spend the early morning with old Simorangkir, one of the village fishermen. His father’s only condition was that Jaya must return home by midday to begin his chores. And on the days Jaya went fishing, he returned home much happier. It was not that he felt any particular affection for Simorangkir; but only on the water with the old fisherman could Jaya simply exist.
            Jaya needed this small time away. His house was too crowded otherwise. He did not mind serving food to his grandparents or fetching things they needed. He did not mind keeping an eye on his younger siblings while his father was out plowing the fields with the buffalo. He was ten, the oldest among the four children; these were his responsibilities. But sometimes in the night, when Jaya’s newborn baby sister would let out a scream that cut through the thin walls and circled inside his ears, when his muscles were tired and aching and only wanted sleep— then he would picture himself alone on a canoe surrounded by ocean like old Simorangkir, with no one to disturb him, and only the gentle lull of the waves around him. But in these almost-dreams he was never old like Simorangkir.
            When he reached the shore next to Simorangkir’s home, Jaya saw the old fisherman dragging his canoe toward the water, next to the smattering of piers and shanties that stored used boats some of the locals had bought from Sumatra to fish or to ease the burden of travel. The jungle slowed trips to other villages on the island, and it was much too far to paddle to Sumatra or even Pagai Utara in a canoe, though there was rarely any reason to leave Pagai Selatan in the first place. Jaya had never left the island.
            But old Simorangkir said the boats were unnecessary. He said that his father had fished in a dugout canoe, and that his father’s father had before him. He said it was the only way to really feel the water. He said the new boats disturbed the fish. And even after his children and grandchildren migrated north to Pagai Utara, he still refused to buy one.
            Simorangkir’s head was bowed beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat. The old man moved slowly, and the canoe left a long drag mark on the beach as he went.
            “The net,” Simorangkir puffed when he noticed Jaya. Simorangkir’s skin stretched wide across his cheekbones, narrowing into a gaunt mouth, and when he spoke his too-large teeth poked out. Jaya quickly found the net beneath the raised house.
            When they had settled the canoe in the water, they paddled toward the shallow reef and let the canoe rest. “We must become part of the surroundings,” Simorangkir said, as he always did. They sat in the stillness a while.
            Jaya peered over the edge of the canoe, but he could not see any fish. The waves were opaque, like light blue glass reflecting the sky. Jaya looked up. No clouds today. He hoped the sun would not blister over him later when he tended the buffalo.
            Simorangkir was lifting the net to cast into the water when Jaya heard it— something like a large beast sucking in a mouthful of air. The water began to pull back away from the shore, then from underneath the boat, and the boat was left sitting on a wide stretch of wet sand as immobile as if it had never left Simorangkir’s house. It was like nothing Jaya had ever seen or heard of, even in ancient legends that he knew were not true.
            He heard a smaller noise, myriad plunking sounds, and he peeked just over the edge of the boat. A rainbow of fish that he had not seen under the water now flopped on the sand. Pinkish fish with deep red manes, bright blue fish with long stripes running from fin to eye. And just next to the boat, a large, flat fish, covered in blocks of black and yellow and white.
            Jaya looked more closely at this one, as it drowned in the open air. The eye was black and round and desperate. It was an eye that knew it was dying. The body continued to twitch.
            Jaya was reaching out for it when something gripped his arm forcefully. He looked down to see Simorangkir’s hand.
            “Come on, boy!” The old fisherman, whose arms were thin like the stilts that protected his house from high tide, was pulling him.
            “But— but the fish,” Jaya began, looking out at them with regret. They were just lying there, waiting to be collected. It would be easy— so many fish that they might not even fit in the canoe. Jaya could sell them at the market. He could feed his family for a month.
            But Simorangkir shook his head and, with a great heave, dragged Jaya out of the boat and then they were running back to the shore, and the muddy sand was warm and squishy between Jaya’s toes and he wondered how the old fisherman was moving so fast. They did not stop at Simorangkir’s house, and the sucking sound grew louder and angrier and more like a helicopter. The old man shouted the order to run as he whisked Jaya through the village, shouted as well as he could without slowing down and without stopping to check who heard him. They did not pass Jaya’s house. And then they entered the jungle, where branches dense with leaves slapped Jaya in the face, and soon they were going up, up the hill behind the village.
            A little way up, a break in the trees opened and Jaya grabbed a branch and rooted himself next to it, so that Simorangkir could not drag him any further. The old man was yelling something, and he was close, so close, Jaya could feel his hot breath in his ear.
But Jaya could not hear him; the noise coming from the water was deafening. The village below was now awake and people were running, without destination, it seemed. Jaya tried to locate his house and thought for a moment he had, but no one came in or out as he watched. Maybe his family had already left. He did not know what was happening, but surely it was something terrible. He wanted his family away. He wanted them here.
            Jaya scanned the wide paths of flat dirt among the houses but the people looked very small, and Jaya found it impossible to recognize anyone for certain. Maybe his family had already reached the jungle, where they were hidden from his view. Jaya gripped the branch more tightly. He could feel the booming noise vibrating in his bones.
            And then Jaya saw the water that had been sucked away, coming back all at once in a giant wall. The first wave was not quite as tall as the raised houses closest to the beach, but when it stretched over the land and fell, it covered half of the village. It was horrible— water and arms and legs and bits of houses, all dragged to sea. The people must be screaming, but still Jaya could hear nothing over the roar of the water. When the second wave came, some of the people ran harder, while some stopped running altogether. Three people, a family maybe, hugged tightly to the thin trunk of a teak tree. This wave was taller than the tree, and after it crashed and drew back, the family was gone. But the third wave covered the entirety of the land below, sweeping inland to the base of the hill from which Jaya stood watching, making everything a part of the vast ocean for a moment. Then the water slipped away as it had before, taking the village with it, and the noise quieted. And only pieces of roof and palms remained.

***

The first day was chaos— only forty people or so collected at the top of the hill by the late afternoon, and more than several hundred unaccounted for. Jaya recognized some of their faces. He kept watching for his family or school friends or anyone who really knew him, but none of them appeared.
            Men around him argued over whether they were safe here, whether they needed to move further inland, whether they should go back to their homes to find loved ones who had been right behind them; people pushed one another aside when they realized the person in front of them was not the brother or sister or father or uncle they had been searching for. Some were injured, and no one knew what to do about it. One of the old women concocted a remedy of water steeped with bitter herbs and poured it over an injured man with sour-smelling patches of ripped flesh.
            Before the night fell it began to rain. The villagers huddled together in small groups and tried to shelter themselves with palm fronds that had fallen when the waves shook the hill. Jaya watched as Simorangkir drifted to the outskirts and then a little more and settled beneath a sandalwood tree dense with foliage. He drew his knees to his chest and rested his head against the trunk and closed his eyes. He did not stir when Jaya sat down next to him.
            Jaya waited until he thought Simorangkir was asleep before he leaned into him, shivering. A strange sort of silence had set in, with the smoothness of the rain, shhh, calling for quiet. Jaya could not sleep. He looked off into the jungle, into the shadows that dotted the lush greenery. Jaya imagined any one of them might be his father emerging at the top of the hill.
            “Jaya, I have been looking everywhere for you. Where have you been?” his father would ask.
            “I have been here, father, waiting for you all day,” Jaya would say. “I was so worried. Where is mother?”
            “She is with the other children. They took shelter in the next village. It was difficult to walk this far, and I wanted them to stay safe.”
            “I almost caught a hundred fish today, father,” Jaya would say. “They were every color you could imagine. If I had scooped them all up, we would be eating like kings tonight.”
            His father would smile and sit down on the earth next to him. He would put his arm around Jaya’s shoulders, but Jaya would not laugh and shake it off as he usually did. “I guess we’d better stay here tonight,” his father would say.
            Jaya would curl up next to his father, not caring that he was too old. “Goodnight, father.”
            “Goodnight, Jaya.”
            And Jaya almost believed this dream, at least enough to fall asleep.

***

The second day was filled with waiting, but Jaya did not know for what. He did not know if the rain meant more waves were coming. Even at the top of this hill he did not feel safe. The water had risen higher than he knew was possible the day before; who knew if it could rise higher still? And it seemed to him that he was not the only one who felt afraid.
            “Someone will come,” said Rio, the village pastor’s grown grandson, after a number of the villagers had voiced their worries. He gripped his wife’s hand with a stiff arm. Jaya had not seen the pastor since the wave came. “Probably help could not make it to the island through the storms, but someone will come. God has not abandoned us.”
            As if to prove him right, a handful of other villagers came forward from the jungle throughout the day, many of them wounded, and each was met first with shouts of “Praise God!”, then with attention from the old woman with the bitter medicine, then with ceaseless questions about who they had seen, dead or alive. Old Simorangkir only shook his head. “I don’t know why they are all thanking God,” he said, “as if He has done something miraculous, by sending more survivors that we cannot feed.”
            But Jaya was thinking of the bodies. He had assumed the other villagers had either escaped somewhere or washed away. Now Jaya remembered the broken pieces of houses he’d seen from the hill when the third wave struck and wondered if a body could be broken in such a way by the water. He thought about his own body; it was much weaker than a house. His mind conjured horrific images of arms chopped off like tree branches, hair loosened from scalps like the foliage shaken from the trees. And the more he tried to make his mind stop thinking these things, the harder it became to do so.
            To occupy his mind and to make himself useful, Jaya joined a group of young women and several boys in searching for fruit, though they had been warned not to stray too far. (“Who knows what has been knocked loose in these storms?” Rio had said.) This high up the hill, the foliage had been ripped from the trees and strewn about, and Jaya had to tread carefully, but not much other debris littered the ground. He discovered a papaya tree and climbed the branches of the tree next to it. When he felt he was close enough, he leaned toward the other tree to shake the papayas down. As he watched them drop, he noticed the edge of a straw hat poking out from under the brush. He had probably stepped on it earlier.
            Dropping from the tree, he reached down and cautiously picked the hat up. There was no sign of anyone around it. Jaya swept the dirt away with his hand. The hat had a conical shape to it, and it was very much like the one his mother wore when she helped in the fields. She kept it in place with a wide silk scarf, pink with gold embroidery, that she tied under her chin. Jaya tucked the hat under his arm and called out to the others to help carry the papayas.
            They fed the injured and the elderly first, then the women, then the healthy and young. By nightfall, no help had come, but at least the rain did not return.

***

On the third day, after waiting all morning, Jaya could not sit still any longer. His family was out there somewhere. Maybe his grandmother was hurt, and they could not move her. Or maybe his father was trying to round up their water buffalo. Maybe his family had escaped but returned to the village, and were looking for him there. Yes. Almost certainly they were wandering through the village looking for him, unaware that he had climbed the hill. How would they know to look for him up here? They might never find him. Jaya stared off into the jungle.
            Simorangkir told him he could not go.
            “What?” Jaya asked, surprised both that Simorangkir was watching him and commanding him.
            “I have seen this before, a long time ago,” Simorangkir said. “There is nothing down there for a boy to see.” He put his hand on Jaya’s shoulder. “Come,” he said.
            Jaya did not move.
            “It will do you no good to harbor hope,” Simorangkir said.
            Jaya said nothing.
            “If they had survived, and were able, they would have joined us by now. If they survived, but were unable to move, they are probably not alive anymore. And if they are alive still, but trapped— what do you suppose you will be able to do about it?”
            Jaya felt his body grow tense.
            “What is done is done,” Simorangkir said. “Leave it be.”
            But Jaya could not go back to waiting. He put on the hat he had found, shook off the old man’s arm, and stepped into the jungle.

***

After hours of walking, Jaya did not know where he was anymore. He continued down, but he was taking long detours to avoid fallen trees and ditches that had been carved into the hill. Jaya was small for his age and could meander without disturbing too much. The smell was the worst part— something like mold and days-old fish at the market and rotting wood. He pulled his t-shirt over his nose as he climbed, but it would not stay put, and he found himself gripping the t-shirt over his nose with one hand and pushing away branches with the other.
            It was late afternoon when he saw the baby. Well, it was not a baby, not really; if Jaya set him upright on the ground, he would probably not fall immediately. He would teeter, maybe take a few steps first.
            The little thing was lying on top of the brush, his face a patchwork of mud and skin, and he slapped at the palm fronds beneath him. He did not cry; Jaya could not even hear him breathing. Only the mechanical tap, tap, tap against something solid like a log, and the barely audible swish of the palms under his tiny fingers.
            When Jaya came closer he saw skin through the ribs of the palm leaves and felt sick. A bloated arm reached from beneath the palm, grasping at something that was no longer there. A tangle of dark hair escaped from the brush, but the woman’s face was turned away. Jaya was glad he could not see her eyes. He remembered the desperate eyes of the dying fish.
            “Hello,” Jaya said awkwardly, his voice cracking.
            The child looked at him but continued tapping.
            Jaya remembered how his mother talked to his baby sister and adjusted his voice to sound more gentle. “It’s OK,” Jaya told the child, and leaned in slowly to pick him up under the arms. The toddler began to cry as soon as Jaya lifted him off the woman. He bounced the little boy in his arms, but the child only screamed more loudly. Jaya adjusted, put the child’s legs around his waist, held him more tightly, and the child leaned his head against Jaya’s warm chest, and did not cry as loudly.
            Jaya turned in a circle and looked around him. He had to get out of this clearing, and then the baby would surely need something to eat. Why hadn’t he brought any fruit with him? A few steps back into the jungle and Jaya spotted a plantain tree. He did not have a knife to cut down the fruit, but he set the baby down softly and picked up two sticks. He batted the plantains delicately at first, afraid of damaging the fruit. Then he began to swing harder, and when the fruit was dangling by a threadlike thinness and he could simply break them off he swung harder still, till the whole bunch fell at his feet with a muffled thwap. His chest was heaving and his face wet.
            He sat down next to the baby and tore the bits of plantain into small pieces the child could eat. Jaya thought again of the dead bloated woman, the dying fish eyes. He could not eat.
            The jungle was beginning to look murky around him as the sun descended. It would be dark soon, and the thought of sleeping alone out here frightened Jaya in a way it never had before. The village should be close now. He could find shelter there, somewhere. Jaya continued on, the child bouncing on his hip as he walked.
            When Jaya finally emerged from the jungle, he saw amongst the boards and thatched roofs and downed trees a solid foundation, and he knew then that this was where the western half of the village had stood. The village school, built by foreigners who had come to visit the church, was the only building with a concrete foundation. The grassy area next to it, where Jaya often played football with the other children in the twilight before dinner, was now filled with debris. Someone was lying face down on top of the mess, but when Jaya called out, the person did not move or respond. Jaya was too frightened to look more closely.
            He walked further out, through the rubble, till he could see, in the distance, the sea. Then he turned and began walking eastward, toward where his house should be. But it was dark, and Jaya could no longer see any markers, if they even existed— no familiar houses, no community buildings like the church. No paths existed anymore except the one he made for himself. It seemed that everything had been turned to pieces of nothing and scattered about. It all looked the same.
            The baby had stopped crying and was snoring quietly against his chest, and Jaya had nearly given up for the night to rest as well when he saw the remains of what must be the market, located at just the spot where the island began to curve. This was the only place in the village with so many large iceboxes for storing fish, and the iceboxes were largely intact, though the one was missing its door. As Jaya walked closer, he saw something dry and red caked onto one of the doors, and the arms and feet of a body that was not moving and was pinned beneath it.
            Jaya was sick. He could not take this. He needed his mother and father. His house should be close, just beyond this bend, seven or eight houses down. He began to run, though it was really more of a stumble as he tried to balance the child, and Jaya tripped on something— he did look to see what, did not want to know what— and fell onto the sand. The child spilled out of his arms and began to wail, and Jaya picked him up again and continued to run, but when he rounded the bend he stopped. He blinked his eyes hard to be sure, but the full moon and stars illuminated the whole beach. It was only vacant sand and rock. A couple of palms swayed alone in the wind. Piles of boards that must have comprised the pier were strewn across the beach; everything else on the east end of the village, including Jaya’s house, had been washed out to sea. The child continued to cry.
            The moon cast a glowing reflection in the black water. Jaya walked toward it, gently bouncing the child on his hip and whispering, “Shhh.” The water was calm now, and the waves crashed lightly in the quiet hum that had once lulled Jaya to sleep. He eased the toddler onto the sand and took a few steps into the sea. He took the too-big straw hat off his head and dipped it into the water. This was how his mother stayed cool on hot days: She would come down to the waterfront and dip the hat in the water, then close her eyes and smile as she placed it back on her head. Jaya did the same now and felt instantly cooler. And when he turned around to face the long expanse of beach and jungle, he imagined his mother and father trapped here in this washed-out, empty place, on the other side of things visible to the living. The child began to cry again.
            Jaya picked up the toddler and carried him to the edge of the jungle, setting him down next to a large rock. Jaya collapsed next to him and leaned against the rock, closing his eyes, and the child crawled toward him and pressed up against his chest. Jaya thought about when he was younger and had once tried on his mother’s hat one day, had even used the pink sash to tie it to his head. She had laughed, and pulled him close, then pushed him to armslength to observe him again and laugh. It was melodic. Jaya tried to hear it now, his mother’s laugh. But he could not. He curled into himself even though it was not cold and fell asleep on the sand to the sound of his own sobbing.

***

In the morning, the toddler tapped Jaya’s chest until he awoke. He gurgled some kind of gibberish, and Jaya felt his stomach growl. He carried the child and walked down the beach until he found another papaya tree, then shook the fruit down. They ate slowly.
            Jaya turned back to the jungle with the child on his hip. He needed to get the child back to the camp. The baby needed someone else, someone to care for him. Jaya’s arms were tired now, and the foul smell was worsening. It had been less pungent on the beach, where the air had room to move about, but back between the trees it was overpowering, even more than Jaya remembered. He felt faint and hoped he would not pass out and fall on the child. He did not know where he was going but up. The daylight exposed more bodies, but Jaya tried not to look at them. He knew that they were not people now. They were empty like the beach where his home once stood. Where his family once lived. They were nothing.
            It was late afternoon when Jaya reached the point where the survivors had gathered, but there were more people now than when he had left. Men in brown military uniforms leaned against a truck that must have come from the other side of the island. Cartons in the back of the truck held food and bottles of water, and some of the military men were wearing white masks over their mouths and carrying long, yellow bags toward the jungle. 
            Jaya set the child down and collapsed next to it. The child began to wail and Rio, who was talking to one of the military men, turned at the sound. He looked at Jaya and the child curiously and walked toward them. As he came closer his pace quickened. “Is that my son?” He called out to his wife, and she began running toward them.
            Rio dropped to his knees and lifted the child to his feet. Rio held his face close to the child’s, and for a moment they only stared at one another. Then all the brightness and hope in Rio’s face fell, and his wife was there behind him. He turned away from Jaya and sobbed, his head pressed against his wife’s waist, and she looked down on him in a mixture of pity and pain. She did not say anything. She only stroked Rio’s hair.
            “I recognize you from the church, don’t I?” she asked Jaya.
            Jaya nodded.
            “You are Ramalan’s son, aren’t you?” she asked.
            Again, Jaya nodded. “Yes.”
            Rio pulled his head away from his wife but still faced her. He breathed long, deep breaths that seemed very loud.
            Rio’s wife looked down at him and rested her hand against his cheek for a moment. Then she knelt down facing Jaya and lifted the toddler into her arms. “I’ll see that he gets cleaned up,” she said, “and try to find out if his mother is here.” She stood and began cooing to the baby and walked away.
            “I do not think she is going to find his mother here,” Jaya said.
            Rio turned toward him. “What makes you think that?”
            “Because I found her already,” Jaya said. “She was covered in branches and brush.” As he spoke, he felt as though the words were coming from someplace else. He was not thinking about them at all.
            Rio shook his head. “Why were you wandering in the jungle alone?”
            “I was looking for my family. They were not there.”
            Rio stared at Jaya for a long moment. Then he nodded toward the military men behind him. “These men are here to help us. They are looking for— for the people who have not been found yet. Like your family. They are setting up tents for us to sleep in tonight. There are other men who are coming, too, who are bringing cots.” He looked Jaya up and down. “Rest here for now,” Rio said, “and I will find you when the tents are prepared.”
            When Rio shook Jaya awake later, it was night again, and the tents and cots were already set up. Jaya could barely move. Rio held Jaya by one arm and Simorangkir held him by the other, and they walked him to their tent where Jaya collapsed on a cot and fell asleep surrounded by the only people he knew in the world and thinking about nothing at all.

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