We ride together, Becky and Tim and Tara and I piled into a mini-bus with the tourists. It’s our day off, Mataram in the background for a moment. Becky and I share the headphones of my CD player. Every time we turn, a woman in a broad orange hat pulls her husband’s arm. “Clem, did you feel that?” she asks. Becky puts her hand discretely on my wrist and mouths, “Clem! Clem!” Behind us, two other women speak quickly in German.
Tim makes friends with the driver, and Tara sits alone. Their matching wedding rings are stark. We drive along small highways, and Becky and I eat satsumas, tossing seeds from the open windows. At the base of a hill, the driver stops the bus and men on motorbikes meet us. The driver guides each of us to ride on the back of a bike and as a pack we scale the dirt hill. The orange hat lady squeals into the bike roar. I eye Becky. “Clem!” There are rice paddies to the side. There are bananas and there is the smell of oil, and it turns out monkeys are mean. They fight and copulate and thieve. Rocks sprout moss and spotted blossoms. My bike follows Becky’s up clawed angles and stones. I worry it won’t go, but it eats the path. I have my hands wrapped around the bike rider’s waist. I am embarrassed by the intimacy, but I feel unsteady with my hands behind me. The riders call to each other in Indonesian. I wonder if my driver thinks I am heavy on his bike, dragging it backwards. The bikes skirt potholes and caress impressive curves. I am the sort of young that is just like being immortal, so I laugh.
At the waterfall, Tim and Becky and I swim fully clothed while Tara soaks her feet. The German tourists strip to bikinis and some of the motorbike drivers ask to take pictures with them. Becky and I float in and out of the waterfall. I am light as the water sweetly pummels my face. This place is full of bright and violent mysteries. I cannot be here, but I am here, in a Lisa Frank poster or a fruit punch ad. Becky pushes beneath the water and emerges like a t-shirted Venus. “Let’s always remember this,” she says.
We stay in the water. The German women pose for many photos with the motorbike drivers, sometimes one and then the other, sometimes together. The taller woman is olive-skinned with dyed blonde hair, and her brunette friend is petite. The blonde is buxom, the brunette a tree of muscle. She has cropped hair and her suit is green. They laugh, then get tired and shrug the men away, plop themselves into the water. “Hi!” says the brunette. “They’re horny bastards.” She laughs. “Didn’t you bring swimsuits? So heavy in shirts.” She plunges under.
We are sitting in the courtyard of Ibu and Sim-Sim and Ahmed’s home eating papaya and jackfruit from three bowls. Sim-Sim and Ahmed are Ibu’s children; Ahmed’s wife and small daughter live here too. It’s too much food, and I don’t know if they think we are hungry or greedy. We give them every reason to guess either. Tara arranges herself, and Becky and I imitate, careful to tuck our feet under our bums and to avoid our left hands. My body goes stiff and numb from kneeling. I check if our hosts are pleased, and I can’t tell at all.
Pineapple and snake fruit and cashews invade me. In the morning, my shit burns as chillies possess my body, but I provoke my system with capsicum at every meal. I chase the angry oils with the water, the sugar, the rice and egg around me. The water is tricky. I carry it bottled, but I keep my sweating self on the verge of dehydration. I’m afraid of the squatting toilets. To use them, I strip beneath the waist and hold my clothes above my head with one hand, but I’m worried I’ll fall or pee on my feet. We leave wrapped food overnight and it is full of ants in the morning. There is no place without ants, no safe water or meat. By prayer you can walk on snakes and swallow poison. These are strange authorities and I am sunburned.
Ahmed chats with Tara. He is burly and balding like a happy king. Children fill the doorway, peeking at us and giggling. I look at the children. They are in slacks, some bare-chested, some in small tops. They have short hair, and I realize that they are all boys. I whisper this to Becky. She smiles at the children, but nods at me. I dig through my scraps of Indonesian to ask Ahmed the question. He doesn’t understand, so I say it again in English. “They are all boys,” I say. “Where are the little girls?” He smiles. “They are there,” he says. But they are not there. I look again at the children. Boys. “Which is a girl?” I ask. He nods. “They are girls,” he says.
Sim-Sim sits down next to me and takes my arm. She starts to stroke it. “Chantik,” she says, and smiles. Ibu, her mother, looks at me. She also smiles, “Gamut.” Chantik means beautiful. Gamut means fat. As though Ibu is our mother, Tara and Becky and Tim and I call her by her matronly honorific. Ibu is gracious and smooth-skinned though she must be sixty. She gently trails her left leg. Her children support her or find her stick. They give her tea and massages. Heat eases Ibu, though she feels chilled in the morning. We never, of course, think it’s cold. “Look at them haul out the jumpers when it’s 25˚C,” says Tim.
I am taller than most of the men. I sweat and turn red. When we are alone, Becky also despairs: “Damn it, Shirl, why didn’t you tell me my eyes look like two piss holes in the snow?” She’s stopped shaving since she’s been here and calls herself the great cloud of body hair. Becky sits next to me. With glances, we comment on everything. She lifts her eyebrows when the Indonesians call me fat. She shrugs later. “You’ve got good legs,” she says.
Becky would go for long walks down the road by herself during training. Once I asked if I could come, and she looked at me awkwardly. We descended the shin of the hill, and Becky took out her pack. “I’ve smoked for years.”
“Can I have one?” I asked.
“Do you smoke?” she said. She lit the cigarette for me.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“You’re like an eight-year-old,” she said. “Take it and inhale slowly.”
I did. The soot was acrid. I coughed. I inhaled again. Becky snorted. “I’ll buy you cigarillos when I’m in town next,” she said. “They’re flavoured. It’s how I started. Your clothes are too big for you.”
In the dorm she gave me a shirt. “It will make me look fat,” I said.
“It’s not a bag,” said Becky. “It will make you look normal.”
Before we packed, Tara previewed our clothes. T-shirts with sleeves were alright, blouses were better. Pants had to be three-quarter length. No bathing suits, no shorts.
“They think white people are Christian and that all white women are whores. They think Britney Spears is a Christian. We have to be above reproach.” When Tara left, Becky put the shorts back into her bag. “I’m wearing them to sleep in,” she said.
We’re supposed to tell Indonesians about Jesus. We prepared for this for three months by living communally, studying the Bible, and doing chores. I painted the outside of the training building. The program leaders explained discipleship to us; when they were done, they prayed for us and assured us of our call. I felt important and clear. We practiced evangelizing by going to parks and talking to people with tattoos.
Becky and I and the other trainees had to colour in maps to show which countries were primarily Christian, and then which had high rates of life expectancy, health, and literacy. The coloured patches made blunt connections between Christianity and other progresses. These were not progresses but blessings.
Tara and Tim are experienced; Becky and I are learning. Tara gets up every morning at 4:00 to pray, though she sometimes naps by 8:30. She is trained as a nurse, but no longer practices. Tara speaks of cures like a fifty-box of crayons: antihistamine, witch hazel, legacy of oppression, aloe, iron, beer. “You’ll find,” she says to Becky and me, “the longer you’re on the mission field, the more boring everyone else is. You go back, and they ask you questions for ten minutes, but then they start to tell you that so-and-so got married and so-and-so had a baby, and you just don’t care. You ask, ‘what is God doing?’ but they don’t know. People want small lives.”
Tara said this as we were eating breakfast. Becky squinted at Tim. “Your eyebrows are a disaster,” she said. She went into her makeup bag and pulled out her tweezers. “No more unibrow.”
“God sends a Canadian to pluck my eyebrows every six months,” said Tim.
We are still sitting with Ibu. Tara jumps a little and whispers something to Tim. He nods. Tim turns to Ahmed. “Ibu is sick?” he asks. Ahmed is confused. Tim touches his hip. “Hurt? Sick?” Ahmed shows understanding. “She is old. It happens because she has so many children,” says Ahmed.
“Many children is good,” says Tara. Tara has no children. In three years, she will be dead.
“Yes,” says the son.
“Can I pray that she will get better?” asks Tara. “Who do you pray to?” asks the son.
“Isa al-masih,” answers Tara. Isa al-masih is the name given to Jesus in the Qur’an. Eight months ago the twin towers fell down. Sometimes, in the Mataram market, there are T-shirts printed with Bin Laden’s lamb-eyed face.
Ahmed consults in quick Indonesian with his mother. I think it is quick. Maybe he is a slow talker. Maybe he has a lisp. Sim-Sim interjects.
“Yes, okay,” says Ahmed.
Tara approaches Ibu, making eye contact, asking if it’s alright. Tara puts her hand on Ibu and prays for Ibu’s leg to be restored. I visualize the mazed insides of Ibu’s body. I picture the bone and I push it into place with prayer. The fabric of scar tissue unwinds and dissolves into her blood, and the ligament aligns. I ask God for the hot power of the Spirit to bring these things into being. I do all of this silently.
I watch. Sim-Sim holds my arm. Her name isn’t really Sim-Sim; it’s a nickname she got when she was a toddler because of how she sounded sucking on noodles. She invited me and Becky to sleep over at her house one night. We stayed up late watching music videos. We slept with all the lights on like the rest of her family.
Sim-Sim taught us to dance a little. She showed us how to hold our fingers like bird mouths and to move our eyes diagonally from corner to corner. She giggled at us. “Just like Britney Spears,” she said. Ahmed came and gathered his small daughter from the women’s room. He couldn’t sleep without her. He was bleary and young. Sim-Sim stepped over the blankets, pivoted. Her feet and her hips were controlled. She nodded to us to move as she did. Becky and I danced like cows and Sim-Sim laughed. “Show me Canadian dancing,” she said. Becky settled on line dancing and awkwardly manoeuvred a grapevine over the mattresses. I tripped. “You’re in your head too much,” said Becky. “Just trust your muscles.”
Sim-Sim asked me about laki-laki—boys. I have promised not to date while I am on mission, but I don’t know how to explain this. Sudah, I said and shook my head because I didn’t know the word for no. When we’re bored, Becky tells me about her exes.
I don’t think about Ibu’s pain. All the injury I know is impermanent. Sim-Sim sells cellphone cases in the market; Ahmed is a bike messenger. I am eighteen and I don’t understand that a limp is a fortune. Instead, I think endlessly of hell and feel defeated.
Sometimes Tara has anorexia. She doesn’t have it right now. It doesn’t totally go away. She’s been very sick three times. When Tara was training to be a nurse, she lived with a boyfriend who wasn’t Tim. It was one of the times she was very sick. She became obsessed with a potholder in their apartment. She wanted to lay the potholder on her stomach and see no edges. “I ate cottage cheese and celery and coffee. I liked that they all started with ‘c’,” she said.
Tara prays out loud for Ibu. She offers most of what she says in English, but finishes in Indonesian. We wait. “Do you feel anything?” Tara asks. Ibu murmurs something to Ahmed.
“My mother say she feel peaceful. She say you have a good spirit with you.”
“It’s Isa al-masih,” says Tara.
Ahmed says something to Ibu. She answers, and he translates. “My mother say. It is hard to explain. She say—sometimes for us there is Islam, and then there are other things. There are other things we know. All of it is good.”
“Does your mother’s hip feel better?” asks Tara. “She thinks she has a pain, but she knows your prayer is good.”
That night, we sit in the motel and we pray for Ibu. We pray that her house will be protected from demons. We pray that she and her family will be able to see clearly. As I am speaking, my voice catches in my throat and my chest feels heavy. Tara grabs my back and Tim lays his palm on my mouth. “Get off of her in the name of Jesus,” says Tim. He fits his hand over my face and lifts the seeming nothing away from me, though I feel it go. I gasp and Tara holds me more tightly. “Holy Spirit, fill and protect,” she says. My chest relaxes, but I feel so, so tired. “He goes after you when you’re trying to do a good thing,” says Tim. We pray for the salvation of Ibu and her household in Jesus’ name. I feel like we have done effective work.
In the morning, Sim-Sim comes to see us while we are still eating breakfast at the motel. “Ibu is good!” shouts Sim-Sim before we can greet her. “Ibu, her leg is better!” Sim-Sim hugs Tara and says something quickly in Indonesian. We don’t understand. Tara and Tim speak Indonesian more than Becky and I, but not much more. Sim-Sim is saying, “Allah.” I understand that.
“When you go to motel,” says Sim-Sim, “we pray our prayers. All of us pray to Allah. And we pray for Ibu. And last night, Ibu hear her mother, and then this morning, her leg healthy! Her mother is dead six year.”
“What did her mother’s voice say?” asks Tara.
“Ibu mother say hello and she know it Allah who heal her. Ibu mother is very good Muslim and Ibu know it is Allah.”
“Isa al-masih,” says Tara.
“Yes,” says Sim-Sim, “in Qur’an. God is good. There is no God but God. Allah heal Ibu.”
Tara looks at Sim-Sim. “I don’t think it is Allah,” says Tara. “I think it is Isa al-masih. That is who I prayed to.”
Sim-Sim shakes her head. “Sudah,” she says. Sudah means enough. “When you do prayer, Ibu does not get better, but when we all do prayer, Ibu hear mother voice. Then she is healthy.”
“Did Tara help?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Sim-Sim. “Tara remind us to be good Muslim.”
When Sim-Sim is gone, we sit in a circle and pray. Tim is angry and keeps binding the devil. “This is the Enemy,” he says. “This is so the Enemy. The Enemy can’t create, he can only imitate. It’s her mother’s voice because he’s imitating something. We have to do some warfare.”
“I’m exasperated,” says Tara. “You try so much.” She shrugs. “Well, Lord, what can you do? This spoils my coffee.”
Becky and I don’t comment. I pray when it’s time, but Becky sits quietly. No one expects Becky to pray. She likes finding the harmony when we sing worship songs. Sometimes we get her to read the Bible so she’ll have a part in things.
“This is mega weird, right?” asks Becky when we are alone.
“I guess Tim said that’s what Satan does?”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense,” says Becky.
“I can’t believe she’s healed at all,” I say. “It’s so weird. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s so weird.”
“But was it Tara that healed her?”
“It’s got to be. It’s not anything else. Like, it’s not Allah, right?”
“Maybe it’s psychosomatic,” says Becky. “She wants to be healed and so it happened. It’s like those healing things on TV where paraplegics can walk for a few hours, but then it goes away.”
“I don’t know. Too much freaky stuff has happened. There are so many weird things I believe now that I would have said were bull three months ago.”
“I know,” says Becky.
I pause. “Let’s pray about it,” I say. Becky and I close our eyes. “Help us to understand,” I ask. “Amen,” says Becky. She hates praying. It’s not one of her spiritual gifts.
We sit quietly and wait. At first, nothing happens, but we are used to this. We sit on the bed in the motel room. The fan spins, but the heat is like a third person in the room. I close my eyes. I can see the house, the tile, the bowls of fruit, the family. I see Sim-Sim, then Ibu. We wait. I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel God leading. Leading means showing you what to do by giving you pictures in your brain and a calm feeling. Becky and I sit for ten minutes. I keep trying to hear God, but all I can see is the house and the family. Becky sighs.
“I think we should go visit Sim-Sim,” she says. “Is that what you heard?” I ask.
“I never know. I only think that, you know, at least we can hang out with her. She’s always pretty funny.” Becky and I walk the ten minutes through Mataram, past the fruit stalls and batik cloth shops, the internet cafes, the men holding hands in army uniforms with long rifles bouncing on their backs as they walk. We look at sarongs. I lay down memory, create a room in my mind that will always find the smell of sewage and cheap incense nostalgic. I will love this moment like a friend.
“I wish we could jog here,” I say. “You’d faint, Shirl,” says Becky.
We are on the edge of the property, away, just behind the trees when we see Ibu. She is sitting in a chair on the veranda as usual. We watch as she gets up slowly, limping.
We walk around the corner. Sim-Sim sees us. She starts. “You visit!” she squeals. She runs to us, takes us to her room. She fusses, bringing pineapple juice and fried banana, and then she wants to watch music videos. She has a new Shania Twain. We play with each other’s hair and she tells us about her boyfriend.
While we were in training, I confessed to Becky that I was worried God was calling me to celibacy, but I didn’t want it. I was guilty; I wanted to give everything to God. Becky shook her head. “Made up story, Shirl,” she said. “You can’t expect that God doesn’t want you to get married. That would be so mean of Him.”
We stay for most of the afternoon with Sim-Sim. I want to relax into the food and the music and the three of us giggling, but I am indebted to mystery. Nothing is natural. I’m afraid that if I do not speak, I will fail God. If we were in training, if this were a case study, I would know what to do. I look at Becky, trying to find our conversation. Can we strategize with a glance? I pray in my head, but the fury of God’s disappointment stains my mind.
Syncretism is the melding of religions. It is also the melding of words. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. I try to hold enough language in my eye. What is this look? Is it Indonesian or English? This broken and valuable tongue that Sim-Sim practices with us, this language that can bring blessing as illiteracy and illness are wiped away like tears, God’s hand passing in great favour over this house. Finally, I ask tonelessly, “How is Ibu?”
“She is heal!” says Sim-Sim. Becky slurps her drink.
“It looked like she was limping when we came in,” I say.
Sim-Sim pauses. She makes her eyes go back and forth and she giggles. “Ibu love Tara,” says Sim-Sim. “Tara, she is just—she is old like Ibu, not older. But Ibu loves Tara like Tara is mother. It is like she hear mother voice when Tara pray.”
“Did Ibu get better?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Sim-Sim. “Yes, I tell you this morning.” Becky stares at me, trying to shut me up.
“Ibu love Tara,” says Sim-Sim. We keep drinking pineapple.
“So, she’s not healed?” asks Becky as we walk away. “Why didn’t—why bring up Allah?” I ask. “If they’re going to pretend she’s better, why are they talking about the mother or Allah? Why didn’t Ibu just pretend to be healed yesterday?”
We walk along the Mataram streets. Our plane landed in Bali and I loved it there. Later, when we go to Java, to the west, I will love that too. We will shower in the open air and we will stay in a village on a mountain. Children will teach us to sing fast songs and to eat deftly with our fingers. Novelty kaleidoscopes. I have not known any of these things before except in books, and each experience blurs life and myth. If there are jungles, it is as likely that there are giants, as likely as chimeric angels. But Mataram is earthly. Tourists and trinkets, the shit of Western culture clinging to the city’s crux ravages it. There is rotting fruit everywhere. We eat a lot of fried rice. The heat and mess scratch. We walk in our tevas and three-quarter length pants. I’m supposed to model Christ; the pants make my bum look big. I’m hot. I’m so hot.
We are crossing the road and I hear but don’t see the motorbike. It swerves hard right and swipes me as it turns the corner; I feel the hot-cold burn of the tailpipe. The force pushes me backwards so that I’m sitting on the ground, my palms scraped. The skin on both my shins is seared. The man on the bike stops. He yells at me in Indonesian, but I don’t understand. My legs hurt and the scar will be ugly.
Becky answers him, though her language is as bad as mine. “Sudah! Sudah! Don’t yell at us for driving like a psycho! She wasn’t even in the road! You’re a maniac!” I love Becky. She is faithful and brave.
The man looks at my legs and says something else to me, then huffs into a tiny shop. He comes back with toothpaste. He’s indicating that he wants money for it. The man takes the toothpaste and leans over my legs, miming, trying to show me to put it on my skin. A woman walks by us on the street.
“You got burn!” she says. “Yeah,” I say.
She turns her calf to show me the back. There is a round, flat scar. “We all have burn. Motorbikes—you have them, you burn.” The man nods and indicates his leg. He has the same kind of scar.
“Toothpaste will eat hurt,” says the woman.
Becky looks at my shins. They are starting to blister. “Shirl! You can’t scar. You have such nice legs.”
I want to cry a little bit. There is too much to think about. My legs hurt. The heat feels like it is mumbling into my ear and I can’t hold the conversation. Beside me, the woman takes the toothpaste from the man. He yells some more.
“Leave us alone!” shouts Becky at him. She is taller than he is. “He hit us,” Becky says to the woman. The woman says something to the man and he yells back at her, then stomps away. “Cluck, cluck, cluck,” the woman says, then hands me the toothpaste. I don’t know if she really said, “Cluck, cluck, cluck.” I can’t speak Indonesian. I unscrew the cap and edge a glob onto the burn. It does feel cool.
“You should pray for your legs,” says Becky, crouched down beside me.
“I’ll just have a scar,” I say. “It’s not serious.”
“It looks bad, Shirl,” she says.
“Well, there’s a sacrifice, right?” I say.
Becky shakes her head and puts her hand on my thigh. “Jesus, please heal Shirl and make the scar go away so that her legs stay sexy. Amen.” She looks at me. “Don’t mess up your legs,” she says.
In three days, there is nothing there at all and Becky starts to call me The Mataram Miracle. We are so far from home.
Photo by Flickr user Neil Conway