May 07, 2008

Afrizal Malna

The Stars Make Shells on My Back
by Afrizal Malna

The unbearably hot dry season sun changed everything I looked at, turned everything into a golden green. This was the color which appeared every time I looked at anything illuminated by a light at night.

And golden green was also the color that appeared this evening. A pleasant breeze was blowing from the sea, like a fan whirling refreshingly in my lungs. White clouds also soared above like outstretched blankets billowing in the wind trying to replace the lush foliage of those old trees which remained along the road side. This was Merauke, like the beautiful kindness of Dela Gepze who once sent me a card for the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, like the smile of Bony Mekiuw too, for yes; he had once made the white sand of Anggayo beach move onto the skin of my back Ð where the stars made shells.

That night Marind and Asmat tribe’s folk, civil servants, police and ordinary people all filled the street flanked by the church and the presbytery. My eyes flickered like the fish which were floundering in the drying river, changed into hardening mud by the long drought. Speeches, dances and songs all came and went filling the stage. This was a celebration, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bishop of Merauke - a silver anniversary, they said. I moved through the throng, through the loftiness of the songs.

And then the throb of tifa drums suddenly started up, coming from off the stage. Over there. Yes. From the main street. My feet began to move seeking out the source of the sound and my golden-green eyes began to make out a group of Asmat tribesmen squatting at the side of the road maintaining a distance from the bright lights. Some of the women were wearing no more than a bra and grass skirt, the white lines adorning their faces and bodies declaring their culture at a glance.

At that moment a small cockroach moved its antennae in my camera, blackish brown and glinting slightly due to the glare of the neon lights shining from the terrace around the church. Five Marind folk were jumping up and down pounding their tifa drums and moving like dogs jumping at a fence. I continued to follow them as they drifted further from the crowd until they stopped at the front of a dark lonely building.

They were not wearing much - none of the brightly coloured woven materials or glittering costumes of the dancers on the stage. Some were wearing tee-shirts bearing the symbol of a political party. Now no more than rags, the yellow tee-shirts had faded to a brownish colour.
They began to collect garbage and set it ablaze at the front of the quiet dark structure. Even here a holy statue caste its shadow from the church yard, separated by a fence with a bicycle resting against it. Then they began to dance again, weaving among the flickering light of the flames of the burning garbage, the shadow of the statue, and the remnants of the harsh glare of the distant shadow-sharpening neon lights.

The throb of the tifa drums in front of the lonely black building altered the night, made it sensitive, while a forest spirit overarched all from the star-filled sky above. One of the dancers suddenly rushed at the flames on one foot, a piece of broken glass implanted in the sole of his foot. Throwing down his drum and sitting next to the fire, he tore the tee-shirt bearing the emblem of the political party from his body and used it to bandage his injured foot. Then once again he started beating his drum and dancing. This was the Enggatzi dance: the Marind people's dance of the dog. They were keeping their distance from the crowd and the majesty of the night's festivities. They had chosen quietness; they did not feel a part of the grandeur. They felt separate from the brightly coloured woven materials and sparkling costumes of the dancers filling the stage.

In the midst of the fan whirling in my breast, in the midst of the outstretched blankets billowing in the sky, suddenly there appeared as it were the figure of Jesus flying from the sky like the trunk of a bus tree, then spearing into the ground not far from where I was watching the dancers. Everything now became whole, complete, golden green; and the sensitive night too became just as whole. The land on which I was standing had changed into a piece of broken glass piercing both my hands and feet; land in search of a different church, in search of a different Freeport. My own tribe, starving Weimena, and Timika, guarded by soldiers, had given me an epic tale to tell.

The night had become golden green - over there. It was like moss on a clump of gold, like the Marind people's land which had been ripped away from them by the newcomers, like a snake suckling a cow.

I couldn't go any further; the forest in the interior was being guarded by soldiers, and I didn't have a permit to enter. In the village of Namen where the road from the centre of the village went past so much scorched black earth, filled with uprooted trees now nothing but burnt charcoal stumps, my steps were halted by a cry from the centre of the village. A man barked, his throat sounding as if it were full of gravel, "Are you with the government!?" It was a scream that once again transformed the tranquility of the village - made it sensitive. The wooden and corrugated-fibro houses transfigured the sun into sheets of hot iron over my head. Gone were the roofs made from the bark of the bus tree.

Bony Mekiuw suddenly arrived, grabbed me and dragged me off, through Wasur forest. He took me deeper into the forest, where the sky was filled with nothing but leaves and stars, and in the middle of that forest of sky I again found the Marind dancing the Enggatzi dance. They smiled at me, with penetrating eyes that reminded me of the rivers drying up because of the drought, turned to thick mud choking the few remaining fish. Death in the river, a meaningless death, and not too far from my own throat.

I joined in and started dancing with them, beating a tifa drum and singing out "Eaaaaaa!” my voice seemingly echoing back at me from the sentinel bus trees. Something was unfolding, like anxiousness repressed for 300 years, since foreign ships had started landing on the island. My skin began to turn black and my bones enlarged and sharpened. My jaw and the skull around my eyes felt larger, harder and sharper.

As I watched, the forest slowly started to change into the disemboweled carcass of a cow dangling in an abattoir. They began to call me by the name "Yowel Mekiuw", and from that day on I lived as they did, - no UNTEA government, and without the great wealth which had been borne away from the land.

Torrential tropical rain had just started falling. Jakarta would flood here and there and the floods would carry garbage from the streets into people's homes. But what did I care. I had no desire to touch the garbage-filled water, slimy and smelling of decaying fish. The next day front yards would be full of all sorts of things drying out.

It was then that I had received Dela Gepza's letter. She wrote in great detail about what had happened to Yowel Mekiuw. He was still living alone in the forest. Refusing to eat rice, Yowel had gone back to cooking sago as his main food Ð the food which had nourished the small bones of his young body. Yowel was also refusing to live in a house with a corrugated-fibro roof because they turned the sun into sheets of hot iron overhead.

He had begun writing poetry, telling the dream-time legends of the birth of his tribe, including the stories of births from dog, boar, coconut and sago. He was now using the small computer he had brought with him from Jakarta as a table and he was writing on bark. These stories were helping him to become one again with the world around him. He no longer felt a sharp ontological gulf with the dog, boar, sago or coconut; they were all part of him.

And towards midnight he would always read out his poems, in the middle of the forest by his camp fire. And as he read, the crashing waves of Anggayo beach seemed to sound out from his voice Ð and the stars made shells on his back. The Marind people began to move in and encircle him. Then one morning in a secluded street a light appeared suddenly, and then the star of the gods fell sprawled out. Following these city officials went on to destroy all the penis-gourds and black clothes. Who else would lead the gods? Suddenly it was morning and the dorang fish gathered up all the grief and held it within their breasts. (*)

Gold, timber, uranium, tin, and coal all surged deep within the bowels of the earth, an earth now laid open - like the disemboweled carcass of a cow hanging in an abattoir.

Dela Gepze had wept in her letter. She told how one day Yowel Mekiuw had been hit in the back by an arrow and no-one knew who had fired it at him. His hair had smelt of kerosene, the white sand and shells falling from his back. He had lost a lot of blood withdrawing the arrow from his back by himself. But the stars had gone on making shells around the protruding arrow, an arrow that held within itself the message that Yowel would not be able to return to the world of his ancestors. The forest had now been buried within the hollow carcass of a suspended disemboweled cow.

Everything still appeared golden green; the conflict raging between the forest and the world of the city - cassowaries, kangaroos and termite nests rising in the forest, all were being cut down to become trophies for people living in the city.

A change was spreading like an epidemic. The Marind surrounding Yowel Mekiuw were also becoming golden green. His body smelling of coal and kerosene, Yowel had started to drag himself along the ground. He had to ease the arrow out of his own back, worsening the bleeding, in order for him to draw closer to the hungry boar. Dela Gepze wept some more. Yowel began to offer his hand to the hungry boar, then other parts of his body, like the exalted songs in the church, like love moving within time, - and then the boar devoured him.

The forest now became quiet again and the sky smelt of fish. I wandered around by myself looking for Yowel Mekiuw, fan spinning in my lungs. The forest was turning golden green; it was becoming foreign, full of the sound of chain saws, liquid gold dripping from clumps of rock.
The night drew on and the forest became a polished pitch-black mirror. I realized that I had trodden on a cassowary egg Ð green in colour and already empty Ð and I could smell the scent of Yowel Mekiuw permeating the shell. I knew, Ð I would never be able to murder Yowel Mekiuw. I was the one who had tried to fire the arrow at him; I was the one who had tried to end his search to rediscover his past, a past now lying in ruins.

As I started to head for the river, a cold wind grabbed me tightly by the throat, just as the darkness had enclosed my head. In the distance I could see a faint light through the golden-green mist. The light was coming from a proa moving slowly over the river in my direction. The fan whirled more quickly in my lungs, becoming like Dela Gepze's weeping. The light, the proa, drew closer and came alongside the river bank. The shells on my back became a multitude.

The golden-green mist blanketed the proa, now nestled among the grass growing along the bank. The sound of water began to reach my ears; then suddenly a hand grabbed me and dragged me into the proa, like the hand of love, like the golden-green mist. In the proa I noticed the smell of Jesus, as pungent as the smell of Yowel Mekiuw's arrow-pierced body, as pungent as the smell of the colour red.

The sun would shine again tomorrow as if recalling the wonderful kindness of Dela Gepze. Dela would be waiting for Yowel Mekiuw to emerge from the forest, but she did not know - Yowel would not be coming home again. He had gone with the forest forever. The proa sped on through the golden-green mist. And the stars went on making shells on my back, as if telling of Yowel's steps from the distant sea.

(Praya 1998 )
* Quoted from the poem by Cannon, a poet from Manokwari prolific in the early 1980’s entitled "That Morning in a Quite Street" (Horison magazine, No. 2, February 1981). Kompas