Friday, 25 April 2008

Pulau Naga

First-Prize short story from the Panin-Kabar Writing Competition 2007

Originally published in Kabar Magazine May 2007

The rusting ferry rolled on over a blank sea and another island of dark forest and ribbed hills fell away behind. There were piles of green bananas, and three slate-blue buffalo tethered in the belly of the boat and the Traveller leant against the flaking bulkwark, watching the dulled water, waiting for the next island to ease up over the horizon.
The journey had stretched into days of green-ribbed islands and strips of white sand and villages of bamboo and thatch among the sagging lontar palms. But none of them was the Island of the Dream. Each landfall was a smaller port, until there were no motorbikes buzzing around the jetty, and that morning they had slipped out from an oily inlet where a rotting pier had backed onto nothing: just a blank wall of palms without even one lontar-thatch hut.
Rough-faced village people with mouths of betel-black teeth, came aboard at each stop, and they looked curiously at the Traveller. They saw him for what he was – a city man, far from home – and they heard the way that he spoke Indonesian, with a Jakarta accent and Jakarta words. But they noticed something else about him, and for days he had heard two words riding in the rough, unfamiliar flow of their unknown language as they glanced at him: Pulau Naga.
When he heard that name he would start forward to where they squatted on a bamboo mat, eating sticky rice from banana leafs and ask, again, “When will we arrive at Pulau Naga?”
For five days the ferry had been sliding eastwards over the blank sea, slowly slipping off the map, and for five days the answer had been the same, in blurred, imperfect Indonesian: “Tomorrow-next day,” pronounced as one word.

The Dreams had begun a year earlier. At night when the Heat of the City was barred beyond air-con in the house of a successful young entrepreneur, and his wife was asleep beside him, and the pembantus had stopped their rough chatter outside their rooms in the yard, the Dreams came. At first there had been only flickering images of a long-dead grandfather, the grandfather with the head of tight curls and the strange peak of hair on his brow; the grandfather with the long wolf’s jaw and the black skin that had made the Traveller fear for the complexions of his own children before they were born. In the dreams the grandfather spoke only in his dark unknown language of Fs and long vowels, the way had done in his final, senile years when the Traveller was a child. And always there were the two understood words: Pulau Naga. Pulau Naga, the island from where his grandfather had come, and which they knew only to be small, and far, far in the East.
Then over the blank horizon of sleep a long, dark coastline had risen, a line of white sand and an endless wall of palms, green in the aching sunlight, and the bright glow where the sea surged over the reef.

It was dark now, and the ferry slithered over a sea that was so oily and black that the water did not break around the hull. The Traveller lay on his mat between the sleeping village people, and he dreamed. In the early part of the year the coastline of the Dream had lain in bright sunlight, but against the changing of the season it fell beneath cloud, and now it stood before the sodden skies of the Monsoon. The lontar palms showed a gold on their lower leaves that had been hidden in the sunshine, and they looked more blank and solid than ever. Beyond the shore there were dark hills, and beyond the dark hills there were great smears of purple-black cloud. In the dream he rode offshore, beyond the breaking reef, and could not cross the water of the lagoon.
The Traveller woke with the same feeling of hollow sorrow that he felt whenever he dreamed of the dark coastline. The ferry had stopped somewhere alone in the night, and it was drifting on an empty sea. He rose from his mat with aching bones and picked his way quietly over the sleeping passengers. He leant against the rough white rail and peered at the empty water. There was a smudge of orange light up in the wheelhouse, but it barely scratched at the dense, hot darkness around them. Tomorrow would be the sixth day, moving slowly east, and tomorrow-next day they would reach Pulau Naga.
Something moved out in the darkness, breaking the water with an oily splash. A fish probably, feeding at the surface. But the sound came again: something bigger, a dolphin maybe, or a shark; there were sharks here. The Traveller peered out into the gloom, but he saw nothing. Then he heard the sound of the water break again, closer this time, and he felt the lightest bump through the rusting iron, and something big with rough skin slid along the outside of the hull.


Dreams come with thickening frequency, and the coastline grows darker, and wetter, and a young entrepreneur wakes each morning with the bruises of broken sleep beneath his eyes and a feeling of empty loss that lingers with him through the day. A young entrepreneur finds himself adrift from all things entrepreneurial. He finds himself silent and distracted in his office, and one day he is caught unawares by gut-aching tears that see him clutching himself and sobbing behind a locked door. He scarcely notices the monthly sales figures and profit totals dwindle, but in panicky moments he thinks he hears the sound of high wind running through dry palm leafs, before he realises it is the air-conditioning unit of a meeting room, or the brown-water spray of a Jakarta street in the thick monsoon traffic. Two small children are pushed away from a distant father and a young wife begins to snap and snarl at his dark silences. And the Dreams continue. Then a new vision comes out from sleep, the island coastline fading. From the blank, empty darkness behind the eyelids a creature swims: a beast with a heavy, dog-lizard head and the horns of a buffalo and the long, rough body of a crocodile-snake. A dragon, but not the frilled dragon of bright myth: this is a dark beast from black hills. The young entrepreneur wakes with a deeper, hollower sense of loss than ever before, and suddenly he knows what he must do. He discovers – the first time that he has ever searched – that Pulau Naga is small beyond small; small beyond maps even, and he finds himself alone on a rotting dock at the end of a yellow, potholed road. Two thousand kilometres behind are an angry wife and uncomprehending children and baffled colleagues, and there is only the dull throb of a white midday sun, and the smell of low-tide mud, and poor people speaking a language that he does not understand, and filthy huts built on crooked stilts, and three goats picking over a patch of yellow scrub. Then the rusting ferry slides in with its buffalos and bananas, and beyond the dock there is a shattered arc of islands and he asks when they will reach Pulau Naga, and the answer is always: “Tomorrow-next day.”


The ferry sailed on into the sixth day, and the sun was bright, and the sea was blank and smooth, and there were tiny boats with sails like inverted triangles tilted at the horizon. At midday they were creeping up a low coastline. There were dark men in outrigger canoes paddling out from the blinding beach. The water showed turquoise over the sandbars, and the Traveller could see a mosque of rusting tin under the palms at the back of the sand. But he did not need to ask: this was not the Island of the Dream. The ferry crept into at inlet where a market of dirty vegetables and fly-bothered fish was laid out on sacks beneath a vast banyan tree.
More people clambered onto the ferry and made their space among the cargo and tied their scrawny, squawking chickens to cleats and stays. They glanced suspiciously at the Traveller. He ignored them, and stood, peering down into the clear water of the inlet. Tiny fish flickered in the splintered light, and the bullet shadows of mullet darted in the deeper water. Then he saw something long and dark turn in the shadow beneath the stilts of the jetty. He leant forward and squinted at the light, but there was nothing there.
When they were at sea again the Traveller sat on the rough deck, resting his head on his small backpack, and he watched the new passengers – women with pinched mouths and dirty towels tied around their heads – talking about him, pointing, discussing. He could not understand them, but he heard the words: Pulau Naga. He raised himself on one elbow and tried to follow the conversation. He heard “Jakarta” and “Java” spoken with conviction by a woman in a stained orange sarong, and he saw the dismissive wave of her companion. Quite clearly from the dark, dense language he heard her say, “Man of Pulau Naga,” and she made the motion of a V, pointing down her forehead from her hairline. The Traveller self-consciously touched the dagger of curly hair on his own brow, the caste mark he had inherited from a black-skinned grandfather. For a moment he caught a memory-smell of sweat and chalk and remembered the taunts of the school corridor that his curls had earned him: black man, Orang Irian, African.
He leant across to the women and asked, “When will we reach Pulau Naga?” and they glanced at one another and said, “Tomorrow-next day.”
The Traveller pillowed his head on his hands and slept in the heat of the afternoon, and dreamt of the dark coastline beyond a lagoon that he could not cross and he woke in sorrow and said aloud, without understanding what he meant, “I do not know my own country.”

The seventh day passed in the white wake. There were tiny islands like black stains sinking in a dark sea, and the Traveller took off his shirt and sat in the white heat and didn’t care if it turned him into a black man. Another night and another day, and in the darkness of the eighth night he dreamed again of the Island, and then of his grandfather. Dark and long-jawed with a dagger of curly hair on his brow, the old man rambled in his own language and repeated the words, “Pulau Naga,” over and over. And then, suddenly in the middle of a sentence, he leant forward and spoke in the embarrassingly childlike Indonesian that he had never lost in forty years in Jakarta. “We are Children of Dragons,” he said, and the Traveller woke in sorrow to find that the boat had stopped again in the empty darkness. He made his way to the rail and looked out into the night, and again he heard something break the surface in the distance, then again closer, then again right alongside the boat, and he looked down and saw a long serpent back bending beside the boat, dark and heavy-scaled. And then it was gone, and the Traveller felt tears pouring down his face. He stumbled back across the deck to the nearest of the blanketed sleepers and shook him gently by the shoulder. It was an old man with a head of iron-grey curls and three stained teeth in blank gums. He squinted up at the traveller with cloudy eyes.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” the Traveller sobbed, “but I need to know – when will we reach Pulau Naga?”
A curled mouth and a frown: “Hah?”
“Pulau Naga – when will we get there?”
The old man tilted his head. “Tomorrow-next day,” he said.

© Tim Hannigan 2008

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