The Tuan Guru Haji Abdullah Abubakar first appeared in twelve-year-old Isaac Williams's largely untroubled life on a Saturday morning in late August.
Isaac sat thirty feet above the ground in the flame tree by the school wall, waiting for his best friend Ismail, who lived in a kampung on the other side of the Muslim cemetery. Three overlapping branches the size of his wrist, each carved with his initials, made a natural seat in front of an oval gap in the foliage through which he could observe a wide swath of the neighborhood before him.
Behind him was his other world. The American Academy of Wonobo, Java, a boarding school of the Union of American Baptists, offered a rigorous, godly education from first through ninth grades. Above the school's main doors, sternly carved on the sandstone gable pediment, was a verse from the Psalms: TEACH ME GOOD JUDGMENT AND KNOWLEDGE. Isaac did not board in the dorm there. He lived with his parents in a house on the residential side of the tangerine trees and hibiscus hedge that divided the large mission compound. Graham and Mary Williams were doctors at the Union of American Baptists' Immanuel Hospital, a four-story building that was the tallest for miles around and took up a good portion of the skyline to Isaac's right.
Isaac had just returned from a six-week summer trip to the States, most of that time spent with his family at the Connecticut gentleman's farm his grandpa Tarleton owned. His sixteen-year-old sister, Rachel, had stayed behind to go to a Christian boarding school in Virginia for her tenth grade. Such a fate was looming for Isaac, but he did his best not to think about it. Boy, it was great to be back home, even if his perch was smaller than he remembered and the top of the wall beneath him not as far away. The mission walls, quarried limestone blocks two feet thick and stacked eight feet high, kept the compound a world unto itself. The flame tree grew by the northern wall, shading a good part of the playground, but several of its branches thrust out over the wall and the public sidewalk of Hospital Street beyond.
Flame-of-the-forest trees, like American boys, are not native to Java, but flame trees and white boys born on the rich Javanese soil sink deep roots. This particular flame-of-the-forest had been planted thirty years ago as a promise tree, when the Wonobo Medical Mission had first opened its doors. The tree had grown with the mission, sprouting seedpods about the same time the mission added a school for the doctors' children. The tree grew and so did the school, which began accepting boarding students. When the tree could grow no higher, it grew thicker and wider. It seemed to Isaac that the tree had been there since the time of Creation and would be there until the Day of Judgment.
On the two-lane but occasionally four-way Hospital Street trishaws, bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, sedans, public transport jitneys, and a sugarcane cart pulled by two oxen rattled and rumbled and tooted and clopped. Pedestrians ambled along the cement brick sidewalks, many heading for the hospital's public gates a hundred yards to Isaac's right. Across the street the neighborhood mosque had new tin sheets on the roof and a new plywood facade of Moorish arches on the sagging front porch. The minaret displayed new speakers, with four of the six aimed at the school and hospital. The new Imam squatted on the front porch, a storky, beady-eyed man who wore white robes and the white cap of a haji who'd made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The old Imam had been fat and jovial; this one gave Isaac the shivers.
Sometime that morning a green banner had been stretched across the mosque's freshly painted wooden picket fence. Its ornate calligraphy proclaimed the mosque to be an official post of the Muslim society of the Nahdat Ummat al-Islam. Isaac had never heard of it before. Printed on the banner was a portrait of the society's leader, an ancient man in robes and turban, with sunken eyes, tombstone cheeks, a white tuft of a beard, and exorbitant eyebrows. TUAN GURU HAJI ABDULLAH ABUBAKAR, the portrait's title said. If the Imam gave Isaac the shivers, then this old man's lifeless gaze chilled his soul.
Underneath Isaac's dangling right foot the sidewalk arced around an ornamental stand of head-high, yellow bamboo that clumped up against the compound wall. The ripe scent of aged urine floated up from the bamboo. A man in black trousers and white shirt broke his stride to step into the stand, where he unzipped his trousers and peed against the wall. His groan of relief rose as clear as a gamelan gong.
There was something different about the bamboo that caught Isaac's attention. The shoots closest to the wall had been cut down. From his elevated angle, something was off-kilter about the wall, too. Curious, he scrambled down the tree and slipped into the stifling shade of the tangerine tree that hid this section of wall from ground-level view. He brushed off a sweat drop trickling down his forehead, frowning at the thick sandstone bricks like he would at an algebra problem. Then he saw the gate. Somebody had cunningly detached a four-foot-square section of wall and then rebricked it within a thin frame of steel strips painted the same color as the stone. The frame was in turn attached on its right side by inset hinges to a stouter I beam inserted behind a facade of sandstone brick. A small gate, but nonetheless one that would allow even a large man to leave the compound.
I wonder if Tanto...But even as the question formed in Isaac's mind, there came from the large lawn on the far side of the residences the blatting of the gardener's mower. Tanto was a hard worker. When would he have had the time to make this gate? Not only that, he was security-conscious. The previous year he had caught a thief climbing over the wall with a bundle of clothes taken off the Higgenbothams' drying line, and he'd nearly bludgeoned the man to death.
It took Isaac a minute to figure out the latching mechanism, cleverly hidden inside a loose brick. With just a touch, the gate opened silently outward. The inch-wide gap beckoned as alluringly as a hole into another universe.
I should tell Dad.
Isaac pushed harder. The bamboo on the other side had been cut to allow the gate to swing open. He bent and stepped through the hole in the wall, scrunching his nose against the acrid stench of urine. Wouldn't anyone who used this patch of bamboo as a pissoir notice the gate? He closed it. On this side the gate was even harder to see.
Now it is really time to tell Dad.
Through a gap in the bamboo, he spotted Ismail darting across the street. Ismail halted underneath the flame tree and glanced up at Isaac's empty perch, his narrow brown face looking as lively as a crackling electric wire. Isaac grinned and slipped out of the bamboo stand. He came close to his friend and tapped Ismail on the shoulder.
Ismail whirled around, his mended shirt flapping loosely on his skinny bones. He was a foot shorter and half as heavy as Isaac, but his scrawny muscles were just as strong. "Iyallah, where did you come from?"
"I have mastered the art of teleportation," Isaac said.
"That so? Then teleport us down to the river."
Isaac waved his hand and intoned, "Bim-sallah-bim."
Ismail looked with exaggerated wonder around him. "Aiyah, it almost worked."
Isaac returned Ismail's snaggletoothed grin with his orthodontically shining one. He wondered if he should tell his friend about the gate, but he decided to keep it his delicious secret for a while longer.
"You're fatter," Ismail said. "And your eyes are more blue."
"They're just the same as they were," Isaac said. "Let's go, we got treasure to find."
They dashed down Hospital Street, weaving around pedestrians. They ran past Pak Harianto's barbershop. The petite man lifted his hand clipper from a black-haired head to wave at Isaac. "Welcome back!" he called out. Isaac was a valued customer -- the only blond among Harianto's clients. Above the barber's wall mirror was a plaque bearing an Arabic inscription, a phrase from the Qur'an: BISMILLAH AR-RAHMAN AR-RAHIM. This stand-alone phrase was so common, Isaac could recognize what the Arabic script meant on sight: "In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful."
On the corner opposite the hospital gates was the Toko Sahabat, or the Friendship Shop. A crowd of shoppers, mostly families of patients, milled around its entrance. The boys slowed to a twisting crawl to pass through the congestion. The owner, Mr. Ah Kiat, hovered behind the two checkout girls on the registers, snuffling his nose into a handkerchief while his sharp eyes kept watch on everything. He always had that handkerchief in hand. The other students called him "Ah Choo." Ah Kiat glanced out the doors at the discount clothes rack on the sidewalk and lowered his handkerchief to yell, "Udin, where are you? I've told you a dozen times to straighten out the sales rack."
From behind the rack, a voice muttered, "By Allah, what does the bastard think I'm doing?" A young man wearing a dirty Iron Mike Tyson T-shirt and an Iron Mike frown stepped out, pushing Isaac to the side.
Isaac protested. "Hey! Awas lo!"
The older boy pointed the handful of coarse hairs on his chin at Isaac as though they were porcupine quills, his face one big bad mood. Isaac, knowing that teenage nastiness transcended cultures, lowered his head and scooted along. Oomph -- he ran right into a barrel belly encased in a blue security officer's uniform. He looked up with a sinking heart at the broad black face and pale yellow eyes of Mr. Theophilus, the hospital's Irianese chief of security.
"You be going where, Isak?" Mr. Theophilus asked in his peculiar outer-island patois.
"Just down to Ismail's house," Isaac said.
"Your mother, does she know this?"
"Of course she does."
Behind the security chief, Ismail bounced from one foot to the other.
"And you are a Christian boy who tells no lies, is that so?"
"I always go out, she knows that. I wouldn't be out if she didn't know it."
Mr. Theophilus's eyes narrowed, but he stepped to the side. "This I will be asking her."
The boys ran around the corner onto Hayam Wuruk Avenue, wide enough for six intercity buses to race side by side on four marked lanes or for any rambunctious mob to spread its elbows. They ran and ran, and the world that was behind Isaac grew smaller and smaller, dwindling down to a memory no more consequential than a wad of Juicy Fruit gum stuck to the bottom of a tennis shoe. They ran past the flower shop with floral arrangements laid out in front like the life of man, from baby bouquets to funeral wreaths. They dodged the cutout cardboard Fuji girl who stood all green and smiles in front of the camera and photocopy shop. They sped up to pass the red-tiled house used as a children's Islamic study hall, where Ismail was supposed to be in present attendance, chanting Qur'an verses with the others. They slowed down to a hopeful trolling pace in front of Pak Heru's fruit shop.
Sure enough, Pak Heru called out, "Isak, wait." Isaac's dad had saved Pak Heru's skin, in the literal sense of the term, for Graham Williams was a dermatologist as well as the hospital's medical director. Pak Heru handed Isaac a tall tangerine slurp. He beamed at Isaac and waved away Isaac's thanks.
Isaac and Ismail walked on, passing the cup back and forth to suck on the tangy ice shavings. They strolled by the establishment owned by Muhammad Ali Benny, a formerly indifferent Buddhist and avid boxing fan who had recited in front of two witnesses the shahadah -- the Muslim confession of faith that there is only one God and Muhammad is His prophet, and had so become a strict Muslim. He continued to serve all faiths as a poor man's dentist. He replaced the teeth he pulled with off-the-rack dentures made in Taiwan, enormous models of which were painted on a whitewashed window, huge pink things with painful-looking, beaver-size teeth. The bismillah sign in his dentist's office was one of the most appropriately placed bismillahs in all of Wonobo. How many patients had those monster chompers levered into place as they tearfully stared at the plaque proclaiming God's compassion and mercy?
On one crumbling warehouse wall, posters had been pasted. The blaring red letters advertised a free dangdut show in the town square the following Sunday, with a silhouetted picture of a slinky female singer at the microphone.
"Hey, this ought to be fun," Ismail said. "You want to go?"
The show was scheduled for the first Sunday of Spiritual Emphasis Week. Reverend Biggs would be arriving from mission headquarters that day to lead the week-long event, and Isaac knew from past years that he would be preaching both morning and evening sermons. But there would be no church service in the afternoon, and Isaac now had a secret gate to sneak out of the compound. "You bet," he said. "Just remind me the day before."
"So how is America?" Ismail asked. "Any dangdut there?"
"America is funny," Isaac said. "You can drink the water. You don't have to take off your shoes when you walk into a house. But you want to know what's really funny?"
"There's no people there. Not in the country, anyway. You can drive and drive and drive and hardly see anyone out walking or working. It's spooky."
They passed the dirty, legless beggar sitting on his four-wheeled trolley in the bus stop's dilapidated security post, a cup for coins placed beside the sidewalk. Isaac had no coins to give. He sucked up the last drops of the drink and tossed the empty cup into the gutter. Isaac Williams the American boy would have been horrified at the littering, but at the moment he was Isaac Williams the Javanese bulé out with his best friend. In Java you scoured your houses and yards clean as heaven, and the jinns and the government took care of the rest.
A public transport bemo, a tinny box on tiny wheels, avoided a minor traffic jam by driving up onto the sidewalk, nearly running the boys over.
"Another thing about America is that drivers will actually stop and let you cross the street," Isaac said as they started walking again.
Ismail's off-centered brows tilted even more in surprise. "Why would they do that?"
"Maybe because pedestrians are so rare, the drivers stop to stare at them."
Ismail laughed. "Like white bulés in Java. See, that driver is staring at you. Hey, by the way, I had my circumcision ceremony when you were in America."
"I'm sorry I missed that," Isaac said. "I would have loved hearing you crying and wailing."
Ismail looked offended. "I didn't make a sound." His expression turned sly. "So when are you going to have the blanket taken off your worm?"
Isaac said loftily, "Worms with blankets grow to be bigger snakes."
"Infidel," Ismail said, flashing his grin and punching Isaac's arm.
They came to a weary, wrought-iron fence. Beyond, ancient frangipani trees sheltered the graves of the old Muslim cemetery. The boys squeezed through a rusted gap in the fence and began to run again through this silent, shadow-shrouded world. Isaac, who had a college vocabulary in his head, flipped through it. Crepuscular, caliginous, tenebrous: Fancy words to keep less fancy fears away, but not altogether successfully. The frangipani trees twisted up from the ground like skeletons rising from the graves. Isaac ran faster yet. At the far end of the cemetery he swung over the fence on a stout frangipani branch and dropped down onto the weedy verge of a narrow residential lane beside Ismail. They bent over with hands on knees, panting and laughing. Isaac wiped fat drops of sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt.
They hurried on, jumping over the lane's potholes. All the houses along this lane were square-planked and raised on stilts, with narrow front verandas and clay-tiled roofs. Ibu Hajjah Wida sat as usual in her veranda's rocking chair, a gilt-edged Qur'an open on her robed lap. A green herbal mask covered her face. Her head was swathed with the incorruptibly white scarf she'd brought back from Mecca three years previously. She read aloud, deaf to the quarreling of her three grandchildren around her feet, but she must have heard the boys, for she stopped reading and glanced up at them. She granted Isaac a benedictory smile. "Al-salamu alaikum, Isak," she called out. "Welcome home."
He dipped his chin. "Alaikum as-salam, Ibu Hajjah. It is good to be back."
She waved him toward her. Isaac glanced at Ismail, who made an impatient face. But Isaac was a polite Javanese bulé who respected his elders, so he opened the gate and stood at the foot of the veranda steps, keeping his gaze downcast, as was proper.
"How are your parents, young Isak?"
"They are fine, thank you."
"Good." She rocked some more, rubbing her gnarled, arthritic fingers across the gilt-embossed cover of the Qur'an. "They are people of the Book, doctors who help the poor. Tell your kind mother and your father they are safe. Tell them not to worry. Most people know they are good people."
Isaac looked up at her in surprise. Behind the green herbal mask her black eyes twinkled kindly. He cleared his throat and said, "Thank you, Ibu Hajjah, I will."
"It's black magicians like Adi the tofu maker who should worry," she said, and returned to her Qur'an.
Isaac rejoined Ismail. What had that been about? What had she meant, that his parents were not to worry, that they were safe? When somebody said something like that, the first thing you did was to start worrying when there had been no worry in the first place.
Ismail's house looked like it had too much of the local arak to drink. The whole of it leaned slightly to the right. Ismail, who was playing hooky, peered through the neighbor's hibiscus hedge to make sure his mother was not around and then darted into the yard to get the metal detector, which was behind the chicken coop. The detector was a battered metal spade with a cracked wooden handle. Ismail claimed that Adi the tofu maker had charmed the spade, putting a metal-detecting jinn into the iron scoop. Adi lived in this neighborhood and made charms and sold amulets to ward off evil influences. Isaac didn't see what was so black about his magic.
Several men, one in robes and turban, squatted on the veranda of Ismail's house, staring at Isaac without expression. He did not recognize them. Through the open door, Isaac saw, on a stand beside the small television, a framed picture of Tuan Guru Haji Abdullah Abubakar. He pointed the picture out to Ismail. "Who is that old guy?"
"The Tuan Guru? A strict Muslim. If he had his way, we wouldn't be able to watch any more wayang kulit shows, don't even mention Hollywood movies."
"Is your father a follower?"
Ismail frowned, his brows twisted with discomfort and embarrassment, an unusual expression on his normally vivacious face. "It gets easy to like a Tuan Guru who preaches against corruption when corrupt bosses steal your land. At least my father still has his job at the sugar mill, or we'd be really hurting." His face cleared and he smiled. "But maybe we'll find some treasure down by the river. Come on."
Several hours later all that the metal-detecting jinn in the magic spade had uncovered in the baked clay and moist muck of the nearly dry Brantas River was a rusted hubcap and an engine block. Isaac's T-shirt was drenched with sweat. A swim would have been nice, but because of the prolonged drought, the river was nothing more than scummy-looking ponds and a sluggish brown stream. A worm of guilt wriggled across his conscience -- not only had his parents laid down a new rule that he had to ask permission before leaving the compound, they had specifically told him not to play down by the river because of mosquitoes and malaria. But Isaac wasn't really disobeying. The State Department warnings that had alarmed his parents were for stupid Americans who didn't know what they were doing, blundering around the country and ignorantly offending people. As for the river rule, that really applied only at sunset, when the mosquitoes swarmed.
"You'd think with the water this low, we'd find lots of things," Isaac said. "Like the Strangs are finding."
Ismail began strolling along the bank, spade extended to the ground. They'd walked far enough out of town that sugarcane fields lined both sides of the river. "The who?"
"Oh, them. But they're still not finding any gold." The local villagers, not to mention government authorities, kept close watch on what the Strangs were finding.
Picar Strang and Mary Williams were good friends, which baffled Isaac. Imagine a weird New Ager yakking about work and family with his mother during their Saturday coffee klatches. His mother was not nearly so generous with her private time with anyone else outside the family.
f0 Ismail halted. "The jinn sensed something here," he said, and began to dig furiously.
Despite repeated failures, hope always rises triumphant on treasure hunts, so Isaac got down on his knees to dig with his hands. "There!" he cried, and snatched out an octagonal coin with raised Chinese letters around a square hole in the center. These kepengs were common, but the jinn had at last found them some money! They inspected the find, excitedly wondering whether they were standing upon real treasure. Ismail put the coin in his pocket. The boys dug for another hour, ending up with a wide, knee-deep hole, their spirits lagging when all the spade turned over was stinky muck. They soon recovered, flinging mud balls at each other, until Isaac realized that the sun was a reddish smudge close to the horizon.
"Aduh, look at the time. I got to get home before I get into trouble," he said.
Ismail glanced up at the setting sun. "Iyallah, if I miss magrib prayers, my father will be furious."
They began to run the mile back to town. Ismail outpaced a panting, overheated Isaac, who stopped for a moment to take off his muddy T-shirt. By the time Ismail reached the irrigation road by the first bridge, Isaac was still lumbering along the riverbed. Mosquitoes swarmed from the ponds and attacked him in clouds. He ran faster, flailing his T-shirt around his body. Ismail doubled over with laughter, slapping his knobby knees.
"You should have seen yourself," he said when Isaac climbed up out of the culvert. "You could be a circus clown."
"Funny," Isaac growled. Ismail slapped him on the back, a hard smack that stung. Isaac yelped. Ismail showed his palm, with a squished mosquito in the center of a crimson smear. "Wow," Ismail said in mock amazement, using the English exclamation before switching to Javanese, "your American blood is just as red as mine!"
Isaac entered the compound by the secret gate. His stomach growled. He wondered what his chances were of talking his parents into going out to eat at the Hai Shin restaurant. The restaurant occupied the ground floor of an old trading warehouse down in the small riverside intestines of Wonobo. Two generations of Chinese Buddhist women ran the restaurant -- three, if you included fifteen-year-old Meimei, who helped in the kitchen cooking her migrant grandmother's old Chinese recipes. Isaac drooled over images of frog's legs fried in garlic butter sauce and pork dumplings. The Hai Shin was the only place in Wonobo where the Americans could eat pork, since the mission forbade it anywhere on the hospital grounds out of respect for the Muslim patients.
Isaac scratched at the mosquito bites within reach. His mother had a radar sense for him, so he sneaked through the back garden of his house and into the outdoor laundry washroom for a quick rinse there. He'd just turned on the water tap to fill a bucket when the overhead fluorescent bulb hummed and flared into harsh light.
Behind him his mom said, "For heaven's sake, what did you get into?"
Isaac put on a smile and turned around. "Oh, hi, Mom. I was out playing with Ismail."
His mother's limp blond strands were pulled back and held in place by a fake tortoiseshell barrette, and the smudges under her soft blue eyes had deepened with another day's hard work. She sniffed. "That smells like river mud. Were you playing in the river?"
"No, not exactly -- "
"Isaac, that river is filthy with disease. And what's this?" She grabbed his arm and looked at his upper shoulder. She turned him around and inspected his back. "You're covered with mosquito bites."
"There was a swarm, it wasn't even sunset -- "
His mother overrode him. "Since we've been back, I've already seen five shantytown children die of malaria," she said in a low, dense voice that did not bode any good for Isaac. "That's why we have the rule that you stay away from the river."
"I know, but -- "
"No buts. You shower out here; I'll get some clothes for you."
Fifteen minutes later Isaac, clean but still itchy, was being hauled away by his mother to the hospital clinic. They crossed the front lawn, big enough to be used for helicopter landings when high government dignitaries came to visit the hospital. Robert the Slobert stood on the porch of his house. His dad, Dr. Higgenbotham, was an oncologist, and his mother was the head nurse trainer. Slobert was thirteen years old, the closest in age to Isaac of all the school students, and the meanest.
"What's up, Dr. Williams?" he called out to Isaac's mother.
"Don't answer," Isaac muttered, but his mom replied that Isaac had been eaten alive by mosquitoes and that she was taking him to the clinic for some medicine.
Isaac kept his gaze on the ground. Great, now Slobert's going to tease me about malaria and think of a stupid trick to pull on me.
She added, "You boys remember to stay away from the river."
Slobert laughed and said, "Only Isaac ever goes to that stupid river."
Mr. Theophilus, on compound duty this evening, opened the grilled gate for them. They crossed Doctors' Alley. The narrow lane separated the hospital from the rest of the compound and dead-ended in a large empty lot slated for future hospital expansion. Mary took Isaac into the bright dispensary, its walls painted a canary yellow, the air rich with the smell of alcohol and antiseptic. She gave Isaac some chloroquine tablets and a cup of water. Isaac dutifully swallowed them without comment, although he knew that the bad malarial strains were chloroquine-resistant. She handed him another tablet. Lariam. The nuclear-bomb pill.
"Oh, Mom, please not that," Isaac begged. "That makes me sicker than a dog."
"Better sick for a night than dead forever," she said grimly. "Drink it down."
Isaac did. The Lariam started to erode his hunger with an ache that later would turn nauseous.
It happened quickly. By the time he got back to the house, he was gagging. His mom told him to keep it down, or he'd have to have another Lariam pill. She escorted him into his bedroom and helped him onto his bed. "Just stay still and think of something nice," she said.
The Lariam's radioactive fallout overwhelmed all thoughts, whether nice or not, and he groaned with misery. He finally couldn't take it anymore. He got up and raced to the bathroom, where he retched as quietly as he could. He didn't want his mother to hear and make him take another pill. The nausea subsided to a tolerable level, and he crawled back to bed. His dad came in to check up on him, a dark, lanky shadow smelling of germicide detergent.
"How are you feeling?"
"Terrible. Lariam should be outlawed."
Graham Williams chuckled. "That's what you get for breaking the rules. We're going to have a little talk about that tomorrow."
"I didn't do anything wrong wrong -- "
"We'll talk about it tomorrow. Your mother asked me to see if you want to eat something."
"Are you kidding?"
"Okay." His father moved to the door.
"Oh, Dad, wait."
Graham Williams paused. "Yes?"
Isaac closed his eyes, seeing again the cunningly made secret gate in the compound wall. If he got grounded, it might come in handy. "Never mind, it doesn't matter."
Sometime later that night he dreamed of a crow spiraling out of the sky, landing on the railing of his bedroom's small porch, such a realistic dream that he was certain he was awake. The crow hopped into the room, spread its wings...Isaac woke, really woke, in a sweat. He didn't fall asleep again for a long time.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Lewis