Sunrise at Koya market, Aksara spread some of his father’s wares; hung up four, fly-ridden fish that had to go – and soon. He enjoyed being in Dangka, the humid outskirts, and hearing the lowland doves coo. Its valleys were the threshold of their territories, as close as most outsiders were allowed. Aksara was a son of the Kanekes tribe, eight-thousand, world-weary people living in isolation on a volcanic range in Banten, Java, Indonesia.
Dry season was ending and the proud Koya Market Grandmothers sat behind their two dark tomatoes, or blackened rambutan, or spoiled jack-fruit, or wrinkled chillies, having private conversations for all to hear. Drawn uphill, outsiders came from Cibenkung, swaying chickens by the feet.
Their territories, designed as a mandala, were four, concentric circles, increasingly sacramonious and unwelcoming. Any old Bapak was welcome in Koya market, welcome to dress as he pleased; and palm alcohol was rahasia umum, ‘public secret’, here. In the next circle, visitors were few, clothing was stark black – or an ‘impure’ shade of navy blue. In the next realm were the inner Kanekes. Bronze skin wrapped in white shawls, they often disappeared for months – entire families on barefoot pilgrimages around the islands. Dead, sacred centre, Arca Domas was an impenetrable bulls-eye, Eden of fields and caves with thirteen inner-circles – mossy, megalithic structures marking each one. Only priests of the Pu’un bloodline, as Aksara’s father had once been, were pure enough to have seen the calm center of their cosmogony.
“You dreaming, Aksara? You?”
“Dini?” he said. “Mbak Dini, is that you? Batara Tunggal! You’re an adult now?”
“Iya Mas,” she said, obligingly. “You live out here?”
Dini was from Cibeo, inner-Kanekes, where tattered white was uniform. Under a frayed white shawl, she wore a white headband that cut across falls of black hair, and the white sling around her bulged with apples. Aksara, taking down his rotten fish with a snap, leant across his display.
“After my mother died, we were told to leave,” he said. “Polygamy is forbidden – so is being unmarried, so now I have a step-mom and some stylish navy blue clothes. Huh? Eh, where you going, anyway?”
“Well, we missed you in Cibeo Mas! Me? Oh to Rangkasbitung to trade some artwork,” she said. “Is there a chance you know the way?”
“As I know it, you go straight ahead, the only road, come to a three-way, and then you take – well then you ask someone else,” he said, smugly. “About a day from here!”
The Koya Market Grandmothers had silenced, their eyes fixated on the girl in white.
“Careful! A crocodile!” said Bunda, elbowing Dini as she passed.
“Well, until we meet again, Aksara!” said Dini.
“Be careful yah? Out there!” he said.
“Watch it! He’ll bite you!” a vendor teased.
Pink soles flashing over red soil, she passed the market stands, coconut husks, fruit, whirling flies. He cleared his display, brought a few out again, paused, and then bagged them with finality. Setting off into the forest, he tried to censor out the story of Rama and Sita. This was disimilar. While Indonesia’s retelling of India’s epic love story had also happened in a forest, he couldn’t work with one thing in particular: three rotting fish.
One hundred days of labour was the punishment for breaking tata krama, custom, for permitted leave. His calf muscles crawled down his ankles and tugged to turn his feet around. Ahead, a dog’s yipping encouraged him the few extra steps to reach the strip of bare sunlight, the main road.
“You a Jaro Tanggungan?” he asked the dog. “Going to tell on me, huh? No?”
Sniffing up from behind him, the stray made him remember: he stunk. Opening his sack, he threw the fish to her, for which she snarled at him and gnashed her teeth.
From the three-way ahead, Dini stood waiting, bringing a green apple to her lips, then down again.
“Nobody to ask for directions!” she said, as he approached. “What’s the tastiest way to Rangkasbitung, Mas?”
The river carried the chill of the Kendeng highlands. The water they shared passed freely through Arca Domas. Something of it even felt sacral, he thought, scrubbing his bronze hands and arms of something lingering – and Piscean.
“Bathe much?” Dini asked.
A strong walker, with one good push, she distanced this boy in blue as cloud shadows were streaming over the leathered swamp ahead of them. Aksara considered heading back, again. A full day of labor tomorrow, then only ninety nine to go.
“Undak usuk,” she said, softly, when he finally caught up. “There are social structures.”
“Tata krama,” he said. “It’s a custom to be courteous. I didn’t want you to be lost out here!”
“And you stink of three, rotting fish.”
Aksara squatted and Dini hugged her knees in a settlement around a mossy firepit. He took half an apple from her pink palm. Eating after sundown was forbidden, and for the storm clouds, it may have already been too late. She slipped her sling off, holding the artwork to her stomach as the first rain began.
“Ayo! Come on, you!” said Aksara. “I know – there’s a place we can take shelter!”
When the trail traced a hollow, they slid down on red knees. Deeper in the forest, the treetops spread open like umbrellas, and the rain met with a tock on dry leaves, tick on palm fronds, splat on stone, ting on the roof of an abandoned Volkswagen, camper van.
“Wiwaha yudha naradha,” she said, keeping her distance from the maroon-colored thing. “We should be weary of what is foreign.”
“Give me the paintings, then,” he said, holding up a banana leaf as their umbrella.
Inside the van, they looked at some markings, speed measured out in kilometres per-hour. Dini insisted that, no, the city they were going to couldn’t be moments away, but was a full day into the distance, as she knew it. Aksara spun the steering wheel and punched the stickshift while she peeled apart pages of the first magazine she’d ever seen, in disapproval and awe – a National Geographic. The first rain was a shifting skin that sealed around the roof, curtained the windows, and parting, made the hard moss beneath them shift and crackle.