There is something happening far beneath the surface of this story, something that drags me under and disorients me until I am in Indonesia, until I am someone else. It is something dangerous, as dangerous as childhood. In “The Underwater Room,” Jill Widner shows us a glimpse into the wilds of childhood, boyhood and girlhood, unparented, in a foreign country. The mood she sets is sure to make you feel, even if you can’t put your finger on what exactly you are feeling. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
From where she sits on a crate beneath the eaves, Elizabeth has a view of the fort. Four boys stand shoulder-deep in what looks like the entrance to an underground den. Barefoot and strong-shouldered, the backs of their necks, an assortment of pelts, they work like carpenter ants. One shovels earth from the floor of the pit. The others pry rocks from the walls with crowbars and bread knives. Two of the boys are lowering a plywood board across one end of the trench to protect the extent of what they are doing from the eyes of passersby. Another has disappeared underground where he has been sent to reinforce the arms of the tunnel they are excavating with lengths of split bamboo, fitting it flat-side up like lath to the ceiling and walls of whatElizabethimagines must be something like a lair for wild animals.
From time to time one of the maids pushes the screen door open a crack to survey the disarray that is accumulating outside the belakang, the rooms at the back of the house where the servants live. Beneath the clothesline, stacks of plywood surround heaps of earth. Several boys are breaking crates apart, removing the nails from the planks as they work, saving the straight ones in a stack, tossing the bent ones to the ground. The maid looks from the pulled nails that litter the driveway to the bicycles that block the way to the door. The ones without kickstands lean against the cinderblock wall. She glances at the dents the handlebar grips have pressed in the screen, but says nothing.
Elizabeth tries not to watch. If they think she is too interested, they will ask her to leave. She looks at her hands, she stares at her feet, but can’t stop herself from staring at the opening in the ground when the boys at the entrance move aside to make room for someone’s rear end backing out from under the plywood roof. He stands, hair thick with clods of dirt; shoulders and arms, caked with earth. He reaches for the edge of the pit as if he is going to lose his balance, then coughing and spitting, lifts himself out of the fort.
As he heads for the hose coiled beneath the faucet at the side of the house, an older boy appears in the driveway, a machete in one hand, a bundle of branches tucked under his arm, his chest, visible through a dirty t-shirt damp with sweat. He scratches the back of his neck with the butt of one of the branches, and, with a dirty thumbnail, picks at the white flakes peeling from his red nose. “How far have they dug?”
Someone standing near the entrance shrugs.
“Can more than one person crawl inside yet?”
“Two,” the boy says. “So far.”
“Is it tall enough to sit up?”
“The boy looks down. Shakes his head. “Not yet.”
“What have you been doing while I was gone?” He lets the branches clatter to the ground beside the tree stump the servants use as a chopping block. “Watch this.” Curious, they draw closer. He stands one of the branches upright on the surface of the stump and chips at it with the machete until he has cut a nick in the bark. He slides his finger up the shaft to catch the trickle of red sap oozing down the damp inner skin of the bark, studies his finger, then shoves his hand into the crowd for them to see. “Blood.”
The boys stand back. It takes a moment before they begin to laugh.
“What time did he say he would be here?”
“What time after lunch?”
They shrug. “That’s all he said.”
“I have to get some things inside.” He hands his machete to the boy everyone knows is good with a knife. “I’m going to need a lot of that sap. Start peeling the bark.” He points to another boy holding a bread knife. “You help.”
When he returns, he is carrying a basin of water. He sets it on the ground next to a pile of earth and begins to make a muddy paste. He pulls his t-shirt over his head, rubs his hands together and spreads the mud thickly across his chest, down his abdomen, then smears some across his forehead and cheeks.
He turns to the branches that the boys have stripped, saturated now with red treacle. He drags his finger back and forth across the exposed skin beneath the bark and smears the sap across his face, dabs at his eyebrows, combs some with his fingers through his hair.
The youngest boys stare open-mouthed.
“Do I look bloody enough?”
The boys grin.
“Where else should I put it?”
“Your toes. We told him someone hacked off your toes with a machete.”
He points to one of the boys. “Unlock your bike. I won’t have time to get there ahead of you if I walk.” He turns to another. “Tie the branches to the rack. When he gets here, stall him. Give him the rundown. Take your time. Walk the river wall to the fence. When you get to the guard house, make him climb around the barbed wire. If he won’t do it, tell him he isn’t ready.”
The boys nod.
“What about you?” one of them asks. “How will you know if we’re coming or not?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“What about the bike?”
“If he sees the bike, he’ll guess.”
“But it’s my bike. Where are you going to put it?”
“I’ll leave it on Mr. Picard’s belakang. You know which house is his?”
Elizabeth is standing now, watching. “I know which one it is,” she says.
The boys turn to her, silent.
Behind her, the maid stands in the doorway, a child on her hip, its bottom resting in a batik sling worn diagonally across her chest and knotted at the shoulder.
“It’s the one with the orchids,” Elizabeth says. “He grows orchids in his backyard. On a trellis.”
Johnnie looks up from where he is standing in the alley, straddling the bar of the borrowed bike. He holds the handlebars steady with one hand and turns to check that the rope is taut around the branches tied to the rack. He rolls the wheels forward. Tests the handbrakes. Turns to the group of boys watching him from the edge of the driveway, alert, awaiting further instruction.
He looks over their heads at the girl. Scratches the mask of mud and tree sap coating the side of his face. “Isn’t she the little girl who swung off the dock into the river with us?”
No one says anything.
“Who is she?”
“She’s Mick’s little sister.”
“You took Mrs. Wattimena’s daughter to Sunday school with you.”
Elizabeth looks at her brother before she meets Johnnie’s eyes.
“I like Mrs. Wattimena,” Johnnie says.
Elizabeth wants to smile because she likes Mrs. Wattimena too, but she holds her face still.
“I like her daughter too,” Johnnie adds.
Some of the boys snicker quietly.
“But I don’t like to read.”
“That’d leave you out of luck, then, wouldn’t it,” Mick says.
Everyone looks atElizabeth’s brother. Mick is older than Johnnie, but he and his sister are new to the oil camp. The boys who have been around longer wait for Johnnie to respond.
“Mr. Picard does grow orchids in his back yard,” Johnnie says. “You’re an observant little girl. Anyone ever told you that?”
The door behind Elizabeth squeaks on its hinges. The maid’s son, a boy of 6 or 7, presses past his mother, two roosters bunched in his arms. He squats, barefoot in a pair of shorts, on the side of the driveway facing the fort and lets the roosters go. They flap their wings and lift a few inches off the ground, then begin to peck among the broken crates and discarded tools scattered beneath the clothesline.
The maid motions to the boy with a backward wave of her hand. “Masuk,” she says. “Come inside.” The boy doesn’t respond.
“I’m leaving now,” Johnnie says. “You know where to take the new kid, right?”
The boys nod, but their attention has turned to the roosters.
Johnnie persists. “Where?”
“The grave in the jungle on the other side of the fence,” says the boy who has lent Johnnie the bike.
Johnnie leans into the handlebars and pushes off. As he approaches the corner, he pedals backwards. The chain makes a ratcheting noise against the sprocket. He looks over his shoulder at the group of boys spread in his wake in the alley. “Ever think of oiling your chain?”
When Johnnie is out of sight, the boys wander back toward the fort. Some of them bend to the ground to pick up the tools they have dropped, but Elizabeth can see that they are more interested in the roosters the Indonesian boy is supervising. Some of the American boys know Bahasa Indonesia; some don’t. Some know it better than others.
“Ayam, ya?” one asks.
The Indonesian boy looks very serious. “Ayam sabung.”
The white boy frowns. He doesn’t understand.
The Indonesian boy stands, walks across the grass and lifts one of the roosters by its yellow clawed foot. He holds it for the white boy to see, then drops the rooster to the ground and lifts his fists. “Perkelahian. Ayam sabung menyabung.”
Another white boy enters the conversation. “Dengan pisau, ya?” he asks, stabbing at the air with his fist like the blade of a knife.
The Indonesian boy smiles.
“They’re fighting cocks,” the white boy explains. “They do it for money.”
Elizabeth hears the sound of leather shoe soles on the pavement and turns to see the new boy standing in the driveway. Her eyes move from his black Sunday school shoes to the red socks pulled over his ankles. His shorts are cinched high on his waist with a black leather belt. Beneath the shirt that is the same unnatural red of his socks, his shoulders hang in a slope. The edge of a silver chain is visible at his open collar. His neck is very white.
The boy who speaks Indonesian turns from the boy with the roosters and walks across the driveway. “Come to help us look for Bohong Saja?”
The new boy doesn’t answer. But he doesn’t say no.
“Let’s go, then.”
Some of the boys duck under the clothesline and run ahead, cutting across the front yard. Others walk in pairs or three or four abreast around the corner.
When Elizabeth’s brother sees that she is following behind the group of boys, he stops.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going too.”
“No, you’re not.”
“As far as the fence.”
“What do you know about the fence?”
Elizabeth looks into his eyes.
“When we reach the fence, turn around. Don’t wait for us. Go home.”
Mick runs to catch up with his friends.
The boys who have taken the shortcut are waiting on the river wall, straddling or leaning against what is known as the pipe, a steel barrier, painted in dash-mark stripes of yellow and black that curves where the road turns the corner.
When everyone has caught up, the boys walk the river wall single file. Elizabeth follows at a distance. The tide is high, and the river laps at the concrete wall. The boys’ voices are quieter now, but carry over the water as they turn to speak to one another. One of them points to a wooden shack facing the river at the end of the wall up ahead. “Think anyone will be in the guard house?”
“Not guard,” the boy who speaks Indonesian says. “Jagar.”
“Who needs to be guarded?” the new boy asks.
“Us,” someone answers.
“Pirates. There are pirates all over this river. At night they glide alongside the tankers anchored out there, waiting their turn at the docks, and then they climb the anchor chain.”
“And do what?”
“Steal money, cigarettes.”
“See that convoy of sampans?” another boy says to the new boy. “They could be pirates.”
100 yards offshore, a dilapidated tugboat, patched together with rusty sheet metal and plywood boards tows a procession of small wooden boats tied together like a moving village. Houseboats, pitched oddly out of the water at the rear, the peaked roofs, thatched with bamboo where fishing nets have been slung to dry. A clothesline is strung between two of them. A woman squatting flat-footed on one of the bows cooks over a fire contained in a pot. From the rear of one of the A-framed roofs, two children peer from behind a curtain.
“They’re not pirates,” the boy who speaks Indonesian says. “They sell things to the sailors.”
“What kind of things?” the new boy wants to know.
“Coconuts. Durian. Snake venom.”
“The Chinese sailors turn it into some kind of aphrodisiac and sell it to the white sailors who hang out at the pool, trying to make friends with the teachers and nurses.”
The boy who seems to know nods his head.
A swell from the tugboat laps at the river wall. Elizabeth’s attention fixes on a clump of tangled stems and leaves bumping over a wave.
The boy walking in front of her has noticed it too.
His hair is very blonde, very soft. He is in her brother’s class at school, which makes him her brother’s age. 13. Three years older than Elizabeth. He is quieter than the others. Separate somehow.
He stoops down and, leaning over the water, pulls the floating plant closer. Beneath the leaves, the stalks form spirals. Attached to the spiral stems are clumps of waxy green spheres trailing a mucousy substance.
“If you press the pods,” he tells Elizabeth, “they make a popping sound. Like a firecracker. We used to hunt for snakes in plants like this.”
The boys nods. “Somebody noticed a bunch of fur balls caught in the leaves and stems floating downriver. At first we didn’t know what they were. We figured it out when we pulled the fur apart and discovered the bones.”
Elizabeth looks into his eyes.
“When a snake eats a rat, the rat flesh dissolves and all that is left is a ball of fur with bones in it.”
“How do the bones and fur get out of the snake?”
He changes the subject. “We’ve pulled all kinds of dead things out of the river. Monkeys, goat heads, giant lizards. All rotten and bloated.”
Elizabeth kneels to the wall to examine the cluster of stems and leaves floating on the surface of the river. “Are these plants dead?”
Elizabeth doesn’t understand.
“Know how I know?” He crouches beside Elizabeth and breaks one of the pods away from the stem. He rinses the slippery coating away from the skin, and hands it to her. “Because there are seeds inside.”
Elizabeth turns the green sphere in the palm of her hand.
The pod feels heavy in her cupped hand. Waterlogged. She doesn’t think it will make the sound he expects. “Have you ever heard of a lotus plant?” she asks.
The boy looks at her. “A lotus plant?”
“Charlotte Wattimena told me about it. Do you know her? Her mother is the librarian at the school.”
“I know Mrs. Wattimena.”
“Charlotte is her daughter. Charlotte told me if you eat the fruit of the lotus plant, it can make you dream. And your dreams can help you understand things better.” Uncertain whether he is listening, her voice trails off at the end. “About yourself and other people.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
Elizabeth looks into his clear light eyes. His face is a smooth, quiet brown, not burnt or peeling or scattered with acne like the faces of so many of the other boys his age.
“Do you think this is the fruit?” she asks.
“I don’t know. Aren’t you going to pop it?” he asks.
Elizabeth looks at the shiny green sphere and shakes her head no. “I want to keep it.”
The boy looks at her hand closed around the pod. “We better go now.” He looks at her. “Are you coming?”
“Did I hear my brother say you swung off the boat dock into the river?” the boy says to Elizabeth.
“Johnnie is your brother?”
“Why weren’t you there?”Elizabeth asks.
“I like to swim. Just not in the river. I like to swim underwater. I like to be able to see where I’m going.”
“I like to swim underwater too.”
He turns as if he hasn’t heard and continues walking toward the guard shack at the end of the river wall when something makes him stop. He kneels to the ground. “Wait. I want to show you something.”
“See this little fern? Watch.” His finger touches the tips of the leaves. As though alive, they close around his finger. “Try it.”
Elizabeth touches the edge of another stem of leaves. When they close around her finger she meets his eyes. “It’s like they went to sleep. Will they open again?”
“Maybe. When they’re ready. If they want to. Let’s go.”
At the end of the river wall, the boys have formed a line along a chain-link fence. Fingers clasped to the wire, they face a stagnant canal and a wall of cane and swamp grass, too dense to penetrate. A few loose boards make a bridge across it. Beneath it, muddy water rushes through a rusty viaduct and empties into the river.
“This is the fence?”Elizabeth asks the boy.
“You haven’t been here before?”
Elizabeth shakes her head no. “But I know about it. I know it’s where the jungle begins. I know Bohong Saja lives on the other side.”
“You don’t know what bohong saja is?”
“I don’t know, exactly. He’s some kind of crazy person.” Elizabeth stares longer. “What then?”
“It’s a kind of test. An initiation rite.” He looks at her. “You don’t know what that is, do you? In Bahasa, bohong means lie. Saja means only. Bohong saja.”
“Just a lie?”
“They do it to everyone. Johnnie goes into the jungle covered in mud and tree sap and waits at the gravesite. The others take the new kid for a walk.”
“Why? To see how brave he is. I guess. To see how much he can take. Do you want to come? I’ll help you. It isn’t as hard as it looks.”
“My brother said I couldn’t.”
He nods. “I have to go now.”
Elizabeth doesn’t say anything, but raises her eyes to meet his.
“Maybe I’ll see you at the pool then,” he says, and turns away.
Elizabeth watches the boys through the chain link fence. One by one, they scale the rebar jutting over the river. One by one they jump to the ground on the other side. In single file, they cross the canal and walk the hard-caked red mud trail until they have disappeared into the shoulder-high cane and swamp grass she had thought was too dense to break through.
Another clump of the floating water plant has drifted close to the wall. Alone now, Elizabeth shakes the green pod in her hand and listens to the river lapping the concrete. Far away, she hears Charlotte Wattimena’s voice. I think there is something to learn from this plant. The blossoms are delicate and open, but the roots underwater are indestructible. It can remind us to be outwardly gentle to others while inwardly tough with ourselves. Do you understand?’ Elizabeth stares at the floating tangle of stems and leaves, lifting and falling, the brown roots trailing behind. A green raft on a muddy swell.
“Romi!” Elizabeth strides to the window in the spare room that looks onto the servants’ quarters. “Romi!” she shouts again, yanking the lever that opens the louvers.
Behind the planks of glass, on the other side of the screen, Romi is ironing a pillowcase.
Elizabeth presses her face to the space between the louvers. “Dimana pakian mandi saya?”
“Apa?” Romi asks, still ironing.
“I can’t find my bathing suit! Where is it?”
“Belum kering, non.”
Elizabeth’s vocabulary has grown. She recognizes the word for not yet and the word for dry. “Why isn’t it?”
“Masi hujan, non. It is raining.”
Elizabeth slams the louvers shut. In a few moments, she is standing under the eaves outside the kitchen door, where the rain falls hard on the thorny branches of bougainvillea climbing the trellis. She stares through the criss-crossed slats of wood, tangled with purple petals and bright wet leaves, at a row of stone pots, brimming with rainwater and knotted roots. Above the roots, tall slender stems bend with the small weight of orchids suspended from the tips like rain-drenched paper lanterns.
Elizabeth runs beneath the eaves around the corner to a door that faces the alley. Inside, three bicycles lean against a cinderblock wall. On the other side of the screened-in room, Romi stands between her kitchen counter, a plywood board laid across several stacked wooden crates, and a cast iron sink built into the wall.
Elizabeth stands by the bikes, her back to the make-shift kitchen, squeezing the handbrakes and thumbing the bell. Above the bicycles, Elizabeth’s bathing suit hangs from a clothesline that Romi has strung the length of the room. She touches the crotch, which is what she can reach, still damp from the rain that has blown through the screen and scowls in Romi’s direction. Romi turns to the sink and drinks black tea from a jar.
“Bagaimana mau berenang waktu hujan?” Romi asks. She points outside to the sound of water gushing through the rain gutters. “Why do you want to swim in the rain?”
Elizabeth has moved to the table that occupies the center of the room. She sits, slumped against the curved back of a rattan chair, one leg folded beneath her buttocks, the other pressed fast to her chest.
Standing now at the rough counter, Romi drops several small chili peppers into a stone vessel. “Cabe rawit,” Romi says to the girl, nodding at the peppers she is crushing with a pestle into a bright red paste.
Romi takes a seat at the table across from the girl. “I would offer you something to eat,” Romi says in Indonesian, flattening the scoop of rice on her plate with the back of a wooden paddle, “but you are the kind of girl who is unwilling to try what she does not know.”
Elizabeth likes to watch Romi eat. She likes the way she clamps her thumb and forefingers around a neat clump of rice and the wet, sucking sounds she makes taking the chili pepper paste into her mouth. Her eyes close briefly, luxuriantly, as she chews, then fill with water as she swallows. She wipes the corners of her eyes with the hem of her shirt, shakes her head and laughs.
“Did the cabe burn your mouth?”Elizabeth asks.
Romi ignores the question. She rinses her plate at the sink and returns to the table with another glass of tepid black tea.
“Why won’t you eat rice?” Romi asks.
They have had this conversation before.
“The Yodder girls eat rice,” Romi says to her.
“Caroline Link eats rice.”
Elizabeth presses the tips of her fingers together, then twisting her fingers into a tangle, pretends to wrap a loop of make-believe string around her hands.
“You don’t work for the Links anymore. You work for us. Caroline Link doesn’t even live here any more.”
“Caroline Link was a very polite girl. A very pretty girl. Very tall for her age. Much taller than you.”
Elizabeth circles her hands with another loop of the imaginary string. “Why do you always have to talk about the Links?”
“I was Caroline’s babu anak. I looked after her from when she was a baby. I bathed her. I ironed her dresses. I brushed and braided her hair. She liked for me to bathe her. She liked for me to brush her hair.”
“I don’t need you to be my babu anak. I don’t need a nanny.”
“And when your parents leave you alone at night?”
“I have my brother to look after me.”
Romi pulls Elizabeth’s hands apart. “Tonight you don’t have your brother. Tonight your brother plays with his American friends. Tonight you must be content to play with me. I know that game. I will show you a different game.”
Elizabeth studies Romi’s eyes doubtfully.
“Come. Sit with me on the floor. But you must be quiet. The children are sleeping.”
Elizabeth follows Romi behind a curtain that hangs in a doorway, glancing briefly at Sari, the baby, who lies asleep on a bright length of cloth that covers a narrow bed, the magazine photographs taped to the wall, the plastic hairbrush on the dressing table, the gold-painted paper umbrella hanging from the ceiling. Romi pushes aside another curtain and they enter the room where Romi’s husband, Idi the cook, sleeps with the two boys. Two wooden bed frames occupy most of the space. A screened grate near the ceiling lets in a bit of air. Between the beds, a framed portrait of President Sukarno hangs on the wall. His eyes look kind,Elizabeth thinks. Without understanding why, she thinks of Idi sitting at the rattan table, bare-chested in a pair of shorts, listening to Radio Republik Indonesia on the short wave radio, while inside the air conditioned house, her father sits at the dining room table, listening to the BBC.
Romi’s youngest boy, Gunadi, who is four, sleeps on his back in a loose pair of shorts on a green oil cloth tucked beneath a thin mattress. Elizabeth walks to the side of the bed to take a closer look at him. He is very small, very thin. His sticky, sleep-crusted eyes are rolled back, but partly open, so that the whites of his eyes show above the lower lashes. Elizabeth watches as they dart back and forth beneath the lids.
“Sssst,” Romi whispers, waving to Elizabeth with a backward swipe of her hand from where she is crouched against the wall.
“Why does he sleep with his eyes open?” Elizabeth whispers.
“His eyes are not open.”
“They are open. Look.” Elizabeth squints her eyes and blinks rapidly, to show her what he is doing. “They’re open in tiny little slits. I can see his eyes moving. Why does he do that?”
“He is dreaming. You do that when you are sleeping. Everyone does. Now come.”
Elizabeth does as she is told.
“Can you do this?” Romi asks, arching the top of her hand into the curved scoop-shape of a spoon.
“And this?” Romi pushes her thumb beneath her wrist until it rests against her forearm.
When Elizabeth shows her that she can, Romi laughs. “Turn around, she commands, tucking her sarong between her legs.
Elizabeth moves between Romi’s knees.
Romi presses the tips of her elbows together until they touch behind her back. She laughs again. “Lentuk sekali. You are very flexible! Good. To play this game you must be supple. Do you want to try?”
“Give me your hand.” Romi places the palm of Elizabeth’s hand on her knee and presses the bones in the top of her hand with her thumb, then turns her hand over and does the same to the pit of her palm. Next she pulls on Elizabeth’s fingers one by until the knuckles crack softly then she turns her wrist in circles. “Shake your hands.”
Elizabeth does as she is told.
Romi lifts Elizabeth’s thumb over the top of her palm until it is resting behind the knuckle of her forefinger. “Can you hold it there?”
Romi folds the forefinger over the middle finger, the middle finger over the ring finger, and so on, until her hand takes the shape of a deformed claw.
“What do you see?”
Elizabeth makes a face. “It looks like I don’t have any fingers.”
“Kepiting ini,” Romi tells her.
“Crab.” Romi waves Elizabeth’s fist from side to side. “When a crab wants something, he never goes to it directly. He watches. He listens. He can wait.”
Elizabeth looks at her fingers folded like crab claws over the knuckles of her hands. Her hands do look like crabs, running sideways away from her wrists. She waves the fingerless stumps half-heartedly. “I don’t like them.”
“It is only a game,” Romi says. “You can unfold your fingers whenever you like.”
“Why did you leave my bathing suit outside in the rain?”
Romi holds the girl’s gaze for a moment before she stands. She rearranges her sarong and reties the knot at her waist. Without speaking, she disappears behind the curtain hanging in the doorway.
Romi unpins the girl’s bathing suit from the clothesline and folds it in half. She pulls Elizabeth forward by the wrist and places the still damp suit in her upturned hand.
“I did not leave your bathing suit in the rain.” She points to the screen that rises from the low cinderblock wall to the ceiling. “Rain can enter this room when it wishes.”
“Couldn’t you have moved it someplace else?”
Romi does not answer the girl’s question. She turns to the bicycles that are leaning slipshod against the cinderblock wall. “You see the hole your handlebar has made in my screen?” Romi pulls the bike upright, one hand on the handgrip, the other on the rack over the back fender. “Next time you park your bicycle? Use the kickstand. You think we want to live with mosquitoes as well as rain?”
The next morning, Elizabeth throws her pajamas to the floor and steps into the still damp tank suit, pulling it quickly over her hips and onto her shoulders. Slightly stiff from hanging all night in the air conditioned house, it smells dank and the snap of the elastic is a cold sting against her back. She glances in the mirror at the white banner across her flat chest, faded to ivory and saturated with brown-black lines, like ribbing or piping, oil stains, from the river. She kicks her pajamas behind the laundry basket, pulls a towel from the rack, and, wrapping it around the trunk of her body, opens the door to find Romi dusting the hallway with a dry mop. Sari, the baby, is tied to her hip in a sling so that her mother can carry her around the house as she works. Romi raises her head, but does not speak. Elizabeth crosses the hall to her bedroom and stands in front of the mirror, pretending to search for something in her drawer.
Romi enters Elizabeth’s bedroom, and Sari watches solemnly as her mother empties the rattan waste basket and leans to the side as Romi bends to make Elizabeth’s bed. When Sari’s fingers begin to pick at the length of batik knotted at her shoulder, Romi pulls her out of the selendang and sets her on the floor. Dressed in a pair of handmade cotton drawers, Sari follows her mother around the room. Her thin black hair curls neatly behind the lobes of her ears, each garnished, Elizabeth notices enviously before she turns her back, with a small gold stud.
Outside the kitchen door, the rain has evaporated overnight, and the steam rising from the damp pavement waves in the morning light like a transparent curtain. Along the back fence, the long torn leaves and the layers of papery husk peeling loose from the trunks of the banana trees flutter in the breeze. Through the fence, Elizabeth hears the keringg-keringg of a bicycle bell turning into the alley and a woman’s voice repeating two syllables. “U-dang. Uuuuuu-dang. U-daaaang.” It is the shrimp lady.
Elizabeth opens the gate and watches the old woman steering the weighted-down bicycle around the corner, one hand on the bamboo basket bolted to the handlebars, the other, balanced on a large canvas saddlebag, strapped over the back fender. She pushes the lever on the bell with her thumb again and again. “Uuuuuu-dang. U-daaaang.”
Half-hidden behind the dented steel drum where the garbage is burned, Elizabeth stands barefoot in her bathing suit, holding the bath towel around her shoulders. When the shrimp lady sees her, she squeezes the handbrakes and begins to pedal backwards, her toes reaching long as her foot pushes the pedal on its downward turn. Elizabeth watches her feet turning round, the hem of her sarong coming dangerously close to the chain. Her long grey hair is tied back from her face, the better to see the long creases around her mouth, the hollow indentations around her rheumy eyes, the high bones of her cheeks, her teeth and lips, stained with betel nut.
She lifts herself down from the bicycle in the female way, one leg crossing the other in front of the saddle, and pulls the bike by the seat onto a stand that lifts the entire back wheel off the ground.
“Fetch your mother, little girl,” the woman says to Elizabeth in Indonesian. “The shrimp is fresh today. If you like fish, I have fish.” She unclasps one side of the saddle bag and motions Elizabeth to look inside. Scales shimmering, tailfin bent to the underside of its body, the fish is the size of a dog.
Elizabeth moves to the front of the bike where a bamboo basket is filled to the brim with squirming prawns. The pearly flesh, visible through the translucent shells, is marked with dark blue lines, and some of the barbed antennae, reaching toward the light, have become caught in the weave of bamboo. Elizabeth hears the creak of the gate and turns to see Romi approaching. Sari is back on her hip in the selendang. An empty shopping basket hangs from her wrist.
Romi turns to Elizabeth. “I thought you were going to the swimming pool,” she says in Indonesian. By now her two small sons, Gunadi and Gunawan, are peeking in the satchel, touching the whiskers of the giant catfish.
“I am. I was. I am.”
“Pegilah. Go, then,” Romi says, dismissing Elizabeth with a backward wave of her hand.
Except for a woman standing waist deep with a boy in her arms at the shallow end, the pool is deserted. Elizabeth can tell by the way the boy holds her shoulders and rests his head beneath her chin that he doesn’t want to swim alone. The woman pries him away from her chest and, holding him by the wrist, swings him around, his feet churning the water like an outboard motor at the back of a boat.
At the other end of the pool, Elizabeth sits on the low board, her feet dangling over the water. A few yards out, the gradually sloping floor drops like a shelf. She stares at the black lines wavering at the bottom of the pool. The deep end looks like the inside of a blue tile box, an underwater room with slanted sides, scribbles of light shimmering across the tile like electricity.
Elizabeth draws her knee to her chest and pulls at a thread in the bleached-brown runner tacked to the diving board. The close woven jute is nubby, and, where the knots have come unfrayed, rough, like the end of a rope. Coarse, like the tail of a horse. Heel tucked close to her buttocks, she touches the back of her thigh and finds that the burlap has left an impression of knots on her skin, like scales.
From the corner of her eye, Elizabeth notices a blonde boy crossing the deck in loose black trunks, a towel draped around his neck. She recognizes his walk and the backs of his shoulders, the soft blond wave of his hair across the back of his head. It is the boy who gave her the water plant pod on the river wall. He drops his towel on a chair and dives into the water.
Elizabeth stands to test the spring of the board. She turns so that her back faces the water but can’t stop herself from glancing over her shoulder toward the shallow end of the pool. The small boy, who was clinging earlier to his mother, is crouched now on the blonde boy’s shoulders.
Elizabeth balances on the end of the board, toes gripping the burlap, heels extended over the edge. She pauses to concentrate, then lifting her arms, springs into a cut-away, the back of her skull passing inches from the end of the board. The tips of her fingers cut the surface first, and then she is plummeting through the water until all that is left of her is the diffracted shape of her arms and legs, the swirl of color that is her suit beneath the wind-rippled surface.
When she comes up for air, she scans the pool for the tall blonde boy in the loose black trunks. He is sinking underwater now, his hands grasped round the small boy’s ankles. First his waist disappears, then the boy’s trembling feet, glued to his shoulders and, finally, the older boy’s head. Immersed to the chin, the small boy tips his head back. He is reaching for a last gulp of air when the older boy bursts through the water, catapulting him into the air. When the small boy surfaces, he rubs his eyes, unable, it seems, to make up his mind whether he is terrified or elated. The older boy strokes to his side. Elizabeth watches curiously as he lifts his head between the small boy’s knees. She watches longer as he walks through the water, the small boy on his shoulders, until he is standing waist-deep again in the safe, shallow end of the pool.
Elizabeth returns to the diving board. This time, standing at the back of the board, she rises on her toes, drops her arms, lifts one knee, and hurtles herself toward the spot on the burlap runner where the familiar stiff bump of the board will spring back. Lifting into the air, she arches her back, then folds herself closed, like a jackknife clicked shut. As she falls, she reaches for her ankles before she clicks open again, a streamlined blade, knifing through the water toward the blue tile room at the bottom of the pool. She likes to rise slowly, eyes open wide, chest millimeters above the blurry tile, her fingertips skimming the slanted wall.
The splash of her head breaking back through the surface is loud in her water-filled ears. Blinking, she turns from side to side. There treading water in front of her, a boy’s broad shoulders and blonde head.
Elizabeth likes how quietly he holds himself upright, his flexed feet kicking softly at the water below. She looks deeper through the surface of his eyes.
He holds her gaze, his brown eyes very brown. “What?” he asks, dipping his mouth and nose underwater.
Elizabeth glances up at the high board. “Can you dive off of that?”
“I can dive. I like underwater better.”
“I like underwater too.”
“You told me that. On the river wall. I remember you telling me that.”
“Do you like to dive for coins?”
“We don’t use coins here. Rupiahs only come in bills.” He squints his eyes. “Well, there are coins. They’re called sen. But you can’t buy anything with sen. Nobody uses coins.”
Treading water with her palms, Elizabeth points to the drain plate at the bottom of the pool. “I call that the underwater room.”
“The underwater room. Or the blue tile room. Sometimes I call it the blue tile room.”
Instead of answering, Elizabeth stares at his wet eyelashes, thick and black and stuck together in pointed clumps. “Your eyelashes look like stars.”
He laughs. “Like stars?”
Elizabeth smiles, dips her mouth underwater, and shoots a stream of water into the air. She turns to the shallow end of the pool. “You know what you were doing to that boy? Will you do that to me?”
“We’ll have to move where I can stand.”
Elizabeth drops beneath the surface and pulls herself forward. Her legs open wide and close behind in a frog kick.
The blonde boy reaches for her foot and pulls her back by the ankle as if she’s taken an unfair start in a race. Shocked that he has touched her, she backs away. Then seeing that he is smiling, she turns on her side and, nuzzling the water, backstrokes toward the shallow end of the pool, pulling him with her, his hand still clasped around her ankle.
“Do you want to ride on my back?”
Elizabeth nods. She takes hold of his shoulders, and slides her legs around his back.
He takes a deep breath and, with two long strokes, dives under. He strokes. He glides. His face leads the way.
Elizabeth’s body bumps into his back. She feels his skin on her skin. When he glides forward, she rises slightly, like a cape tied round his neck, waving behind. The front of his body skims the bottom of the pool. The hem of his long black trunks washes away from his leg, and his fingertips are skimming the slanted wall. Eyes open wide, she watches the slope of the tile floor passing by, scribbles of light shimmering across the tile like electricity.
When she can’t hold her breath any longer, she lets go and kicks her way to the surface where she treads water, the lower half of her face submerged so that she can see him, afraid that he has had enough of her.
He is sitting cross-legged on the tile floor. A cloud of bubbles rises. She can’t predict his next move. She is lifting her face to take a breath when she feels his hair, the curve of the top of his head, pushing between her legs, and then he is standing, his forearms wrapped around her knees. She tilts to the side, a little off balance, and then the tops of her feet are tucked against the small of his back.
“Do you think you can stand on my shoulders?”
He moves his hands to her ankles. She squats on his shoulders and holds the top of his head.
“I’m going to go under,” he tells her. “I’m going to hold your ankles and let out my breath until I sink to the bottom.”
“Don’t let go.”
“Keep your feet flat on my shoulders. Stay crouched as we go underwater. You’re not going to know when I’m going to come up. You have to be able to feel it coming or you won’t shoot up in the air.”
It is quiet underwater. Elizabeth holds her breath and watches the bubbles rise, her knees pressed to his ears, and then he is barreling toward the surface, and she is catapulting into the air.
He strokes the distance across the water where she is rising. “Give me your hand,” he says.
She takes hold of his wrists, thinking he is going to twirl her around.
“Not like that,” he says. He takes her wrist in one hand and her ankle in the other. “Lie down on the water.”
It is hard at first not to sink.
“Let yourself float.” He begins to turn in circles. Her chest bumps the surface as he spins. She feels like a kite, her body, an X in the air.
He asks her if she wants him to throw her into the air again. She nods, thinking he means for her to climb on his shoulders.
He dips his chin underwater and leans his head to the side. “Not like that,” he says. He rests one upturned hand on her chest. “Like this. Just let yourself float.”
She isn’t sure what he means. She doesn’t need his hand to float. Then she feels his other hand resting between her legs. She can feel the smooth surface of the palm of his hand through the crotch of her suit, holding her there between her legs, and then he is walking, pushing her lightly from behind, the flat of his hand against her pubis, and she doesn’t resist.
She hears a ticking sound. Small pocks of rain clicking the surface of the water. Without saying anything, he lets go of her and strokes to the side of the pool, lifts himself out of the water, and walks to the chair where he left his towel at the other end of the pool.
Elizabeth turns on her stomach and lowers her face to the water. Still as a floating leaf, her eyes just above the surface, her vision turns clear as glass. Except for the pelts of rain pricking her back and the surface of the pool, it is quiet. Lying this way, she holds her breath, searching for the scribbles of sunlight that earlier had been shimmering across the tile like electricity.
—photo Flickr/xavi talleda