Story from Fay Loomis


            The beating of the hollow bamboo kulkul pulled her from the dream world. Sounds of roosters and dogs crowded her consciousness. Through the wooden grill she glimpsed mist drifting upward, blurring the tall dark palm trees at the edge of the gorge. In the distance, she picked out Mt. Agung, silhouetted against spreading wisps of orange. Like a woman’s breast, the quiescent volcano nurtures nearby Besakih, the Hindu mother temple of Bali, she thought. Anna rolled her naked body over the edge of the low bamboo bed. Feet touching the cool tile, she stepped slowly through the carved open doors onto the secluded balcony.

            Already Ketut was moving about the losmen, a small compound of bungalows, gently placing incense and offerings in the doorways – small woven palm baskets filled with flowers, bits of rice, meat, and vegetables. He gave a slight kick to the gifts intended for the bad spirits. “We take you to Barong Dance,” he had said, “then know for long time good Barong dance with evil witch Rangda.”

            Large white puffy clouds hung over the crater. Anna smiled, remembering Ketut’s words. “Clouds over Gunung Agung mean good lucky.”  She went back into the bedroom and pulled the sheets over her, drawing the last of the night’s coolness from them.      

            The hot sun drove through the open window. She jerked awake. Nine years, and it’s not finished, she thought, even when I think it is. The nightmare had chased her half-way round the world. The divorce judge asks if she has anything to say. She can’t move, speak. She fades into the dull light of the courtroom. I am not going to let this dream destroy my vacation, Anna reminds herself.

            Anna slipped into a turquoise T-shirt and brightly patterned shorts she had bought in the states. She loved wearing them because the children were drawn to her, laughing as they touched the patches of fuchsia, yellow, and purple. Their playful game took her back to the long summer nights of her childhood. After splashing water on her face and running a brush through her short hair, Anna strolled to the dining porch high above the terraced rice paddies.

            “What for breakfast?” asked Ketut.

            “Teh, two eggs, soft-boiled, toast bread, and fruit salad,” she laughed, thinking there’s not much choice at this losmen. Breakfasts were good. After two weeks,  Anna was just tired of the same thing. Or, was it three?   She pulled out the bamboo chair, her mind drifting back to that first day.

            She remembered how the plane had raced the sun toward Indonesia. The reddened sky formed a backdrop for eerie cloud formations that seemed to grow like stalagmites from a sunken lake. Dropping over tiny green islands, edged with beaches, the plane began its long descent and taxied toward a primitive building with a tin roof.

             Children raced toward the tarmac to greet the landing in the early dawn. A pregnant woman and two children were silhouetted against the sky; three men hunkered in the grass along the runway. Anna walked toward the airport through the heavy air. A warm light rain brushed her face. Ancient sounds pulled her up the stairs and down the long wooden walkway to the holding area where she saw singers and dancers, dressed in feathers and fluttering strips of grass, welcoming passengers. Tears came to Anna’s eyes. She wanted to sob. Home, she thought, I’m home, even though I’ve never been to these islands.

             “It’s the people that make Indonesia,” a man standing next to her said.          

             Ketut laid out her breakfast. “Program today?”

            “I am thinking of going to the market, so I can try more kinds of fruit. I’m also thinking of looking for a place to get my watch fixed. Is there a place in Ubud?”

            “No place here. Must go to Denpasar, maybe Gianyar. You want me take on motorbike?”

            “The first day I am here, my watch stopped running. I think maybe I need a battery. You sure there is no place here?”

            “No, no place here,” he repeated.

            “I am afraid of motorbike. I also need to confirm airplane reservations. I could hire a driver to take me to Denpasar and do everything the same day.”

            She watched Ketut walk toward the stairs that led to the kitchen below. Typical Balinese man, she thought, shoulders tapering to a narrow waist, small round buttocks, firm straight legs, black curly hair, unselfconsciously sensuous. Anna laughed softly with pleasure, not wanting him to hear.

            Any illusions about Balinese lovers had been quickly brushed aside by expats. Activities involving the physical senses, including eating and making love, were finished as quickly as possible. Balinese desires seemed to be centered on living in harmony with each other, the natural world, and the spirit that animates Life.

            After she had checked into the losmen, she and Ketut walked up the stairs to her room. “Already married?” he asked.

            “Already divorced nine years.”

             “Maybe you like Ketut be Balinese husband?” He put her luggage down.                                                                                                                        

            “No, Ketut,” she said, with a hasty, forced laugh. “I’m old enough to be your mother!  I have a daughter twice your age.” 

            He handed her keys to the room. “I hope sleep good. I down stairs if need anything.

Selamat tidur.”

             She felt a slow burn rise in her belly. Ketut was the age of the boy she had met in high school who would become her future husband. Rich had seen her across the cafeteria and knew the shy girl would be his. They talked endlessly about books, movies, ideas. His favorite author was Hemingway, hers Elizabeth Barrett Browning. They would study literature in college and create a life filled with things they loved.

            One night, after her parents had gone upstairs to bed, they turned off the kitchen lights and whispered in the glow of the wall heater. “Sit on my lap,” he said. It was over before she knew what happened.

             The next day Rich called. “You have to marry me. No one will want damaged goods now.”  She felt confused like she had been when she told her father she wanted to go to college and get married after graduation. “If that isn’t the damndest thing I’ve ever heard. Girls don’t need to go to college. Some boy will get you into the bushes before that happens.” 

            Her mind, returned to the past, made Anna feel like she was having a near-death experience. Memory chased memory.

             “If you drop out of college and save money,” her fiancé said, “we can get married sooner. You can go back to school when I graduate.”  She settled into a secretarial job. “I need a master’s,” he said, “so I can get a good job.” Rich didn’t specifically state what he meant. Anna knew she would once more set aside her own education.

            Two years later Rich had an appointment with his thesis advisor to wrap up the details of his degree. He came home, gathered up the baby and held her softly to his chest. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.

            “I tried a new recipe, lamb chops stuffed with blue cheese. I think they’ll be great, but dinner will be a little late. I just had to finish sewing this baby dress. Isn’t it cute?”

             Rich picked the tiny dress up with his free hand and said, “Yes, it is. I’m excited, too. My advisor told me the department chair wanted to see me. Bill offered me a job as a teaching assistant and invited me to enroll in the Ph.D. program, so I could teach at the college level. I accepted both offers. I hope we can make it now that you are working part-time.”  

            When their daughter was ready to start kindergarten, Anna’s slow burn burst into flame. She shoved her anger deep into her gut and announced, “I’m quitting my job and going back to school. I’ll take one course at a time and fit it around your schedule.” 

            Over time, TV and a six-pack of beer began to preempt dinner. “You’re becoming an alcoholic, please get help,” she said.

            “I’m not,” he snapped. Eventually, two six-packs and no dinner defined their evenings.            “Can’t you even come and sit with me on the couch during commercials?” Anna asked one last question:  “Will you come with me to therapy?”

            “I’m happy. You’re the one that’s not.”  Two visits later, the therapist ended the sessions.

            “I want out,” she said.

            “I’ve always loved you. I have never been unfaithful. How can you do this to me?” 

It didn’t occur to Anna to ask Rich the same question.

            Anna thought both of their parents sounded like echoes. “How can you, a wife, leave your husband?” Their daughter, who now lived in New York City, was the only one who dared mention the word she had stated when she was thirteen. At that time, she had asked her mother, “Why don’t you get a divorce?” Anna wondered how a young child could know what she was feeling, when she scarcely knew herself.

              Within a year of their divorce, Rich married a student, fathered a child, and moved into a huge house with a swimming pool. Like her ex, the men she met preferred women half their age.

             Anna moved into a studio apartment and cried every day for a year. Verlaine’s poem Il pleure dans mon coeur (It Rains in My Heart) saturated  her mind like an unending squall. Their friends became his friends. A pariah, she left Michigan and drove cross-country to California.

            Her mind drifted back to what she was going to do about the broken watch. Anna had managed better than she thought and wondered if she could put off the repair until the day of her late afternoon flight. The unrest of the past year, precipitated by Mandela’s freedom, the Gulf War, and the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, might make it too risky to wait until the last moment. She had to have the watch fixed when she hit work in her deadline-oriented public relations job.

            A few months ago, Anna had read in the Los Angeles Times about the fast-disappearing paradise and knew with piercing clarity that she must go there. “I want to take a two-month leave and go to Bali,” she said to her boss, a tall beautiful woman who liked to say she spent more money on clothes in a week than on the monthly rent for her high-rise condo.

             “I took a chance on hiring you, mid-forties, no experience. I can’t afford to have you gone that long. How about two weeks?”

            “I know it sounds crazy, but I need two months.”    

            “If you go, I can’t guarantee you’ll have a job when you get back. There are plenty of young barracudas ready to edge you out.”

            Anna walked across the hall to her office. She carefully shut the door, even though she wanted to slam it – something she had never done in her life. Her legs felt like overcooked spaghetti. She whispered under her breath, “God damn it!  My father, my husband, and now my boss driving my choices. When am I going to be in the driver’s seat?”

             During her lunch break, Anna bought a ticket from Garuda airline. “May the holy bird Garuda carry you safely to Bali,” the agent said.

            She signed the credit card receipt, her hand shaking, her silk dress damp with perspiration. Anna walked toward her car, laughter and crying twisted into a rivulet of tears. She wondered how she could throw away her job, retirement, and maybe the niggling dream of finding a husband.

            Anna leaned her weight against the side of her dark green Ford Fairmont and tried to find her compass. She clutched her hands to her head and said, “After more than twenty years, I’ve got it:  I’m what Betty Friedan called a trapped woman, another casualty of the feminine mystique.”

            A man, getting into the silver Mercedes next to her, said “What’s the matter, lady?”  

            In a suffocated voice, she said, “I’m wondering if Betty Friedan is laughing or crying with me.”

            He shouted across the top of his car, “Who cares?  You’re better looking.”

            I care, she thought. I’m going to please myself. Anna looked at her watch. Oh, my God, not this minute. I’m going to have to go to a drive-through, grab some food, and eat at my desk, so I can turn in the Anderson marketing plan to the big guns by three.

            The short time in Bali had already helped her kick Cronos aside and slip into the loving embrace of Kairos. Anna loved being in the moment. She was beginning to understand the dance that had brought her to this place. She didn’t know if she still had a job. She did know that when she returned she was going to visit colleges in the area and find out what it would take to teach at one of them. It was time to come home to herself, to the longing in her soul. Repairing her watch could wait, the hole in her heart couldn’t.

            She cut the egg shells with quick strokes of her knife and scooped the golden contents onto her plate, adding butter and pinches of salt and pepper. Satisfied with breakfast, she settled back to savor her ginger tea, the fragrance competing with the sweetness of the frangipani.

            Anna caught a speck of scarlet coming across the rice fields, reminding her of the brilliant red, orange, and pink hibiscus in the gardens around the bungalows. The woman, dressed in a drab sarong and long-sleeved shirt, approached a man who was already cutting the bulging rice stalks. She shook out her long silky black hair, wound it quickly into a knot, and finished with a second knot. The two were joined by another woman, also plainly dressed, wearing a huge hat woven from palm leaves.

            They quickly cleared the wet paddy and neatly stacked the sheaves on the narrow grass path surrounding it. The woman with the bright head covering walked to a hut nearby, returning with an old metal barrel on her head that she dropped with a dull sound onto a large indigo mat the others had spread over the muddy earth. They carefully positioned the barrel, and the woman in the scarlet headdress began beating the bundles against the metal, turning them from front to back as the mat received the tiny grains of rice. The other two moved to a new sawah, their scythes playing a slow rhythm against the sounds from the other woman’s barrel.

            Anna, lost in the wordless harmony of their work, didn’t hear Ketut come up beside her.

“You no go to market?” asked Ketut.

            “I don’t think so. I was watching the workers and forgot about time. It’s too late and too hot. I am going to swim. Can you bring soup for lunch, please, when I get back?”

            She continued to look toward the farmers. “Hard work, isn’t it?”  Even in paradise, she thought, but they work with such ease.

            “Yes,” said Ketut. “Only three in family. My family have fifty people for rice cutting.” 

Surprised by the large number, she turned to look at him.

            “You go to odalan again tonight?” he asked.

            “Yes. You, too?”

            “Of course, family temple. You come again with family?  We bring flowers and

incense for prayer. Seven o’clock we go.”

            “Thank you, Ketut. I will remember to wear my sarong and prayer sash.”

             Her mind drifted back to last night, the beginning of the four-day odalan to celebrate the anniversary of the temple. For hours, women, dressed in sarongs and sheer kebayas, ornaments and flowers in their hair, had processed to the temple with carefully arranged offerings piled high on their heads. The men were equally adorned in beautiful sarongs and headdresses laced with gold and silver, flowers tucked behind their ears. The gamelan players, a mass of turquoise silk shirts, punctuated the ceremonies with their ritual clanging music. Well-behaved children were dressed in their best.

            Sounds and images of the previous evening  came back in a rush:  joking; laughter; cigarettes; prayer and a blessing by the priest; bright parasols with fringe; dancers; black and white checked sarongs; strips of gold and white cloth wrapped around the intricately carved gods. The ceremony continued long after the moon appeared in the star-filled sky.

            “Isn’t it late for little children to be up, Ketut?” she asked.

             “No. Good not sleep much. Keep close to dreamtime. All life dreamtime.”

Fay L. Loomis, member of the Stone Ridge Library Writers and Rats Ass Review Workshop, lives a quiet life in upstate New York. Her poetry and prose appear in Best of Mad Swirl 2022, Herbs & Spices Anthology (Highland Park Poetry), As It Ought To Be Magazine, Down in the Dirt, Five Fleas, W-Poesis, Spillwords, and elsewhere.