Essay selection from the 2011 issue
by Tara Lindis
On the first day in our house in Bali, a fish died in the fishpond. Floating, belly upturned and eyes straight ahead, its color had started out vibrant, became grey, then the color of skim milk—grey-bluewhite. It haunted me with its grotesque yet magnetic attraction. I continued to look at it and look for it when I walked by the fishpond. I wanted it gone, but I didn’t want to have to remove it.
My son, twenty months old, was learning to talk and copying what we said. We looked over the edge of the house and into the pond.
“Fish.” He said, pointing to the pond. I couldn’t tell if he was pointing to the ones that were swimming or the one that wasn’t.
The house came with a gardener and house cleaner. Still, in Bali, you couldn’t assume the gardener would take care of the fish when he saw it. You had to specifically ask, at least until he got to know you. When he did finally remove it, the water where the fish had been was now smooth green. The other fish continued to swim around the space where the fish had been, as if it was still there.
One morning, my husband, Kent, and I were working at an Internet café on the main road in Ubud. We sat at big awkward wooden tables, carved in the shape of tree roots, engrossed in our computer screens when we heard the crash of motorbikes outside. I could hear various people yelling through the window, and saw a few men drag one man from the street to the sidewalk where they dropped him. I could even hear the clunk of his head hitting the sidewalk, the clunk being one of those sounds that make you raise your shoulders, cover your ears and curl in on yourself in an attempt to shut it out as it echoes in your brain.
The man’s eyes were glazed over, half his face was covered in blood and all of him shook, quaking in the same way the plates of the earth do during earthquakes. My husband and I ran outside; my husband had two men grab his legs and hold them up, thinking the man was going into shock. He asked someone else for something to put in the man’s mouth so he didn’t bite his tongue.
I stood just to the side, not knowing what to do. I told the Internet café manager to call an ambulance, knowing that even if called, the ambulance wouldn’t come; it wouldn’t be able to get through the traffic. Cars and motor bikes do not pull over at the sound of a siren in Bali, even if they did, the roads are too narrow; there is no place for them to pull over to. I watched the man’s legs jerk as he rode the current that ripped through his body. Slowly, I realized that there had been no accident: he had had a seizure while driving his motorbike.
As the man’s body quake slowed, then stopped, my husband held his hand and talked to him. Kent asked for someone who spoke Bahasa and English; no one came forward, yet the man seemed to be listening to what Kent was saying. Kent kept on in a slow steady voice, “stay with me. Keep your eyes open. Stay awake”.
In the mornings, as my son and I wait for the water to boil for coffee, we look into the pond to count the frogs sitting on the lily pads, or under the foot of the Ganesha statue, or in the corner of the rock wall. One day, we counted eight.
One afternoon when the rains came, I looked at the rain coming down and splashing into the water of the fishpond. The level of the water had risen, so it was equal to the wall of the pond. I could only see one frog in the pond, his front legs wrapped around the stem of a lily pad while his hind legs floated behind him, fighting to stay still in the rain induced current.
The man who had a seizure had a basket on his motorbike. Inside, he had several clear plastic bags twist-tied shut, some with watermelon, some with shrimp crackers, some full of the sugary sweets that Balinese children love. He was on his way to the market to sell them throughout the day. When he crashed into the parked car, all the twist-tied bags spilled onto the street. After my husband made sure he was okay, the police came and took him to the hospital to bandage his head. We then left to pick up our son from nursery school. On the way home, we drove by the spot in front of the Internet café where the man had crashed. He and his motorbike were gone, but the watermelons, shrimp crackers, and sugary sweets still lay scattered in the street.
My son is learning the names of animals and the sounds they make, though he usually calls the animals by the sounds they make instead of their names. I read in a parenting magazine how to prevent this naming mix-up, but clearly I didn’t follow it.
My husband and I said that frogs said ribbit, yet listening to the frogs in our pond, and to the ones who live just outside in the rice paddies, we realized we were wrong.
The housecleaner’s husband, Ketut, stopped us one day on a walk.
“Small frogs,” he said, “ click click click. Big frogs. Crack crack crack.”
The man who had a seizure never said anything to Kent. Kent didn’t even get his name. A woman came up to me and said in Indonesian, “He has epilepsy”. It was one of those odd moments in a foreign country, where I understood her, even though I didn’t speak the same language. But I have since learned that the names of diseases are the same in most languages. When I turned back around to ask her how she knew the man, she was gone.
Kent and I spent the rest of the day thinking and wondering about the man, the first time he had a seizure, how often he had them, his family, how many people he had to support, how scary it must be to be driving one second and on the sidewalk the next with a white guy in your face speaking a language you don’t understand. Yet surprise or confusion or shock never registered on the man’s face.
One day, on the green leaves of the lily pads, we noticed a collection of black frog eggs. A week later, we saw black squiggly question marks swimming along the wall of the pond. When Kent and Fyo feed the fish, tossing in granules of food, the tadpoles squiggle towards the bits of food as big as themselves. The fish don’t mind the tadpoles and swim around them, eating their food from under the water, their bites sending small ripples circling out.
Kent takes a jar from the kitchen and scoops out a jar full of pond water, so Fyo can see the tadpoles up close. All three of us peer into the jar, full of murky water and black squiggling tadpoles. Their underbellies are translucent and inside, you can see the blurred internal workings of their organs. Kent and I wonder out loud how long it takes them to turn into frogs. Fyo sticks his head right up to the glass.
“Fish.” He says.
The day after we saw the man have a seizure, we went to the cremation ceremony in our village. Cremation ceremonies in Bali take place once every five years. We had been watching the preparations for weeks, as men built platforms for offerings, and readied large piñatalike bulls covered in brown fabric to be carried in the procession. Our gardener, Wayan, informs us that cremation is expensive, so they used to exhume the bodies and cremate them all at once. But now, because the village was having a problem with witches stealing bones and pieces of hair for the evil spells they cast on people, the villagers do this symbolic cremation.
For the Balinese Hindu, their relationships with God, People, and Nature are very important; they have a temple for each in each village. During the cremation ceremony procession between all three temples in the village, my husband and I, along with our son, dressed in our sarongs and sashes, stand on the side of the road and watch the procession of life-size piñata-like bulls approach the sacred site around the Banyan tree. The music of the gamalan gets more intense, the mallet beats the gong louder, hands bang the drums harder, and sound shimmers out to reverberate through the crowd watching the procession. Twenty men, acting as pallbearers of a life-size piñatalike bull, come down the street. They stop with the bull and raise and lower it as if it was getting ready to charge, then continue on as another twenty men come running down the street with another bull. The intensity of emotion, sight and sound surprise me; without knowing why, I discover I am crying.
Later, we watch the families of the village load the animals with offerings of food, clothes, sarongs, and sheets, things you would find in the hope chests of an older generation. When the bulls are full, they light each one on fire, burning the bulls and all the offerings inside. The spirits then know to follow the smoke onto the next world.
The next day, we drive by the grounds where they burned the offerings, and we see black piles of ash still smoldering. For the first time in weeks, driving through the village, we see no people.
Our house in Bali sits in the middle of a rice field. At night, we can hear the frogs cricking and cracking, and cicadas zithering. Occasionally, we also hear the hollow sounds of the gamalan across the ravine from the temple. I look up from my book and on the wall is a gecko the size of my forearm. Other smaller geckos scamper across the walls.
One night, after my husband and son have gone to sleep, I turn out the lights, and I see a firefly flying around outside the mosquito netting, the greenish light flitting about above my head. I think of the smoke the spirits are following to the next world, and everything their families offered up to the gods for the deceased. I think of the epileptic man who drove a motor bike laden with fruit and sweets that never made it to market. I think of the black tadpoles with translucent underbellies that display their fragile beginning. I let my eyes follow the firefly’s dance, and find in this place of constant sight and sound, stillness within movement.