On the slopes of the volcano where night erases day in a heartbeat. The sun and the moon, brother and sister. They must never meet.
Hope is a heartless creature, pressing its velvety nose against the palm of your hand, gazing at you with puppy eyes. Hope will dupe you with its innocent face and feeble promises. "Maybe," it whispers. "Maybe you could try." It will send you hunting for fortunes in a faraway land, lure you away from Java's green Eden. A place so fertile you can't spit out a kernel for fear a forest will grow around you.
The lucky ones will return with a chunky wad of cash. Or disgraced, like your mother and mine, heads cowed in shame and stomachs rounder than the full moon.
But shame can be swallowed, sin turned into money and past transgressions forgotten for a profit. Hunger knows no honor in this land of beggars and serfs. And all babies must be birthed, whether they're welcome or not. They are unceremoniously popped out, passed on to grandmothers, neighbors or sold to the highest bidder. Bastards palmed off like litters of unwanted kittens.
Just like us.
You and I, warped mirror images, two sides of the same coin. Mongrels of servants and masters, conceived on different sides of the earth, beneath different stars. Your father, a foreign dog, just like mine. Lustful devils, who couldn't stay away from the maids' quarters. The seed of sin planted in your mother and in mine, at the very same time.
Your mother dumps you just days old at my mother's house. Your pink moon-cake face - a poignant reminder of how the weak must bow to the mighty. She can't stomach the sight of you.
"You, you feed her. I… I can't."
Like Java's fertile soil, your mother's plump breasts are bursting with milk, but she's unwilling to suckle you. Perhaps she goes to Jakarta, perhaps she returns to that far-off place to be raped for pennies whilst scrubbing someone's filthy floors. It matters none. Dignity can't sate an empty stomach. Money is the only honor around here.
But my mother has milk for us both. You and I, dark and light, different shades of shame nursing at her teats like mangy kittens. Before she too must leave and we're abandoned to grow wild, passed around between relatives.
You and I - inseparable. We cling to one another. But sixteen years later, it is your turn to pack your cheap canvas bag. I watch you tuck your fake identity papers inside and the headscarf you've never worn. I can't bear to see you go because without you there is no me. But I'm almost a man now. I must shroud my tears in indifference.
"People spend a fortune to go where I'm going, to walk in the footsteps of the Prophet." You're childishly gleeful when you tell me this. But mostly you think of fat, foreign money, paper bills as thick and glossy as clove tree leaves. And I think of you, returning with your head cowed in shame, a foreign demon's seed sucking the life out of you.
"You'll see," you say. "I'll come back and buy you a motorbike. We'll go away. We'll leave here and never return."
I turn my back when you bow out through the door. But my desire to be a man is ripped apart by the sound of your footsteps fading away. I catch up with you on your way to the bus.
"Come," I say, though I want to say 'stay, don't go.' I pull you into the dense shrubs by the path. There are snakes in the underbrush but I can't think of anything but you. How you're leaving me. Bewildered and guilty, I kiss you, shielded by the mango grove. Your hair coils between my fingers, as if it doesn't want to leave me either.
"I'll come back," you say.
I watch the bus disappear towards the unknown, the sting of sin like palm wine on my lips. I am not supposed to want you like this. You who nursed at my mother's breast.
You return, like you promised. Your stomach flat but your head still cowed in shame. Your pockets are empty, earning you a slap and a scolding from Auntie.
"Stupid girl," she says, thinking you have squandered everything. Two years in Saudi, in the holiest of lands, where the riches flow like sap from rubber trees. Two years and nothing to show for it.
Your eyes steer clear of mine as I serve you rice and vegetables outside the hut. I try to work up the nerve to ask if you'll go away with me now. You have no money for the motorbike, but I have enough buried in a glass jar behind the chicken coop. Enough for two bus tickets to the city. For you and I.
You eat under silence, your shoulders hunched over. I study your skin, trying to see what has changed, where you've gone. You chew on one mouthful for an eternity, masticating like the cattle in our yard. When you finally swallow, the sound is so hard it reverberates under the indigo of the night sky. Then you shove your plate away with your foot as if it's dirt.
"At least you're home now," I say, reaching out to touch that scrawny foot of yours, remembering that day in the mango grove, your eyes shimmering like the scales of a fish. "God has brought you home."
You flinch, swatting my clumsy peasant hand away and never, never have you brushed away my caress before. Your hand in mine, every night since the day we met. Holding onto me, even as babies huddled on the same sleeping mat.
"You're just a stupid little boy." Your words hurt but not as much as the sight of your eyes. How they've turned dull like the soles of my tattered rubber sandals. "There's no God."
You've left me behind in childhood, forsaken me with my naïve hopefulness.
You come to me, in the damp murkiness of the night, the hushed suction of your bare feet across the hard earth floor.
You're like a restless dog, circling my bed-mat until you lie down, pushing my limbs, making space for yourself. But it's nothing like before, like when we were children, not to cling to me while thunder makes bamboo tremble. You snake your hard girl hands under my sarong, your lips pressed against mine. Roughly. I'm puzzled by the hurried flutter of fingers, confused by the subdued lull of limbs wounding tightly around one another. My body obeying you, not me.
The rustle of clothes caressed away. I'm petrified of waking up the others. The milk we shared, making us haram, forbidden. Stop. Don't. But your mouth shushes mine. Your lips bittersweet, unraveling me, stripping my revulsion away. There's no way I can resist. You. You. Your heated impatience leaving nothing but strident, unappeasable want. It surges forward, gushing ruby red and clamorous through me. A garish magenta behind my eyelids. And in my heart.
The devil curdles my blood, separates me into two different persons. One who fears God's wrath, and another who just wants you. You.
But the night has ears. It's inevitable that we should be found out sooner or later. And we're driven from the only home we know. Sister and brother, whore and sinner. Moon and sun may never meet, yet they send us away together.
We go in opposite directions. You step on the bus to Jakarta, and I hitch a train to Bali.
I find work and learn some English, just enough to talk to the tourists. I try to repent, be a devoted Moslem. I pray, I fast and give alms. I serve drinks, never tasting a drop. I hold my breath as I pass street stalls where suckling pigs are roasting on spits. I avert my eyes from short skirts and bikini tops. I do my best.
Then you arrive, clasping a black plastic bag, your breasts like the sun-kissed mangoes from our grove, welling out of your city-girl dress. I look at my feet. I can't look at you without wanting to smell your skin again.
"Can I stay with you?"
And how can I deny you? Your pudgy baby hands have grappled for mine, and mine for yours. Lines are blurred, borders invisible, we float together. You and I, we've suckled the same milk, breathed the same air, slept in the same cot. We share the same pitiful fate.
Sun and moon, always struggling to find one another.
You remain at my shabby rental house in the seedy backstreets of Kuta where Satan stands on every corner. He hides in tourists' gaudy batik shorts, sips drinks at my bar and sneaks up disguised as brazen village girls with nothing left to lose, selling themselves to greasy foreigners.
The faithful at the neighborhood mosque warn me about you. They approach me, shamefaced, huddled in a group after Friday prayers.
"She's a bad woman," they say. "Send her away."
"I can't throw her out. She is my milk sister," I say and they grumble, "It won't end well."
And maybe it won't but hope has me by the tender skin of my neck.
We exist in parallel worlds. You, clinging to the fleshy, pasty arms of Westerners, your laughter shrill and foreign. I, washing beer glasses behind the bar. Eternally the silent spectator, suffering, yearning, longing for you. Part of me still remaining in that mango grove where I first kissed you, blinded by my infantile hopefulness.
Because hope is a callous beast. "Just wait," it cajoles. "She'll change. You'll see. She'll come back to you."
So I wait. I wait and watch while you lure those ugly fishes with your wretched beauty. How their dumb lobster-red faces drool, thinking you're something they can have for a bargain. And they can. Every night, they corrode you a little more. Like snatching away a building block, one at the time, until nothing remains but your dull hard greed. I hope you charge them high. I hope you bleed those flabby tourists dry - because nothing can be enough for what they rob you of.
I ask what you need all that money for. Where will you go? What will you do? And you turn your face from me. You like to pretend you are not worthless.
"Someone will marry me," you answer. "Some one will bring me away."
"No one will marry a whore," I say. But I would. I would.
I ask you to stay away from my place of work. Because I can't stand watching yet another man put an oily hand on your alabaster skin. I can't endure another night watching your lifeless eyes scan the crowd in the hunt for the next handful of crumpled Rupiah bills shoved down your cleavage.
"There are thousands of bars in Bali. Why do you have to trawl mine?"
You shrug. Because you need me. You need me to watch your downfall, to remind yourself that you exist outside the endless line of soiled hotel linen. That you are human too.
You and I, entwined, tangled up together, the edges hazy and bleeding into one another. You are I, and I am you. Even out of sight, I am right there. I have no choice. My thoughts follow you like a dog its master.
Every time they use you, I'm there. Every time you spread your legs to another grunting, dough-white swine, I feel the violation as if were it my own flesh. As if I were a fly on the wall. I sense every degrading thrust, feel every grubby finger digging into your hips. I cringe at the taste of their putrid breath, their smell, like rancid butter. I am there. I feel it all.
"There's no such thing as love," you say. And for you, it's a truth so raw and naked it brings more shame than watching you press your breasts against another beefy Aussie. But the greatest shame of all, how I still hope. How I wake up with a flutter in my stomach. How I think every morning, that today, today will be the day.
Hope always finding me somehow.
You come to my bed. Just like that night, a lifetime ago. The rustle of clothes and the musty smell of earth is the same.
"Why? Why are you doing this?" I say and you quash my protests with your kiss. You know I can't resist you. Your mouth, your mouth. The mouth that suckled at my mother's breast, side by side with me. You and I, so close we don't know where one begins and the other ends.
And now it awakens a hunger more primal, more urgent than the blind need of an infant. The beguilingly sweet curves of an upper lip that swerves too close to the nose. Like a child's, lips that don't close properly, leaving you looking permanently confused, teeth visible in the little triangle. The last vestige of innocence. Which is as false as it 's stupid. That mouth has pleasured more men than I can bear to imagine. That mouth knows nothing but lies. But I can't stop the rest. I succumb to you. I take you as you are. I kiss the traces of the other men from your skin, caress away every last smudge of their groping hands. Nothing wrong. It can't be wrong. You and I. So close, we can't meet.
I wake up to the susurration of shame. Your back, slick with sweat from the stifling mugginess of my room. The timid morning light tinting you in a shimmering silver as you rise from my bed. I see it then - my mother's milk lingering fat, rich and white under your skin.
Clothes slipping on as I lie there. The vinegary taste of regret in my mouth. What have I done? All those other men and to think that I'm no different. Just another man who wants a piece of you. What I've done can't be undone. A transgression so grave, there is no forgiveness to be had. Milk sister. You drop a grimy thousand Rupiah bill on my naked stomach, proving a crude point. I'm no better than you.
I scour myself frantically over the pail of water in the yard, washing you away.
"It's done," you call as you pass behind me. "You can't wash it off. Besides, that shitty, watery milk must have been pissed out a long time ago,"
You again. Yet another night.
I catch the sound of you laughing out too loud, and my eyes search for you. That phony, twittering laughter you use for those men, how it stings. But who am I to look down on you? Had I been born female, as sure as smoke will float upwards, I'd have been the one out there in a silver lamé dress, selling myself to the highest bidder too. You are I and I am you. Sun and moon.
Yet another hairy red paw fondling your buttocks. I know the drill. Soon you'll have struck a deal and you'll leave for his hotel. And I'll be here, tending the bar, thinking of nothing but those vile, hard fingers sullying your milky skin, defiling your moon-cake body. You'll stagger back in the morning with empty eyes and an overstuffed wallet. Money you'll have spent before the day turns to night again. It won't liberate you this time either. Won't set your free.
Shards of glass shooting across the club.
An explosion. The world, a mute chaos of fire, what else is there to say? There is nothing that can explain this, stumbling around with the smell of burning flesh in my nostrils, lifting flaccid limbs, rolling blood-soaked bodies over. Searching for you. There are no words for finding you, skin coming off in strips. No words but, 'no'. God. No.
I hoist you over my shoulder. And I'm swaying towards the doors as the second explosion hits like a wall of boiling oil.
Heat. Then. Nothing.
You live. But I can't pray no more. I can't turn my face westwards and bend my neck to Mecca. No more. No more. God has left me.
You and I, like two sides of the same coin. Your burns cover your upper body, mine, my lower. You shielded me from that second blast. The guilt festers like a slow rot in my bones.
They show dead foreigners on television, talk of crazy Muslims. The bomb, what a tragedy. And it is. But this, the beauty of the moon sliced into scraps of meat, its creamy surface in slivers. Where's God's wrath now? Where is his punishment for those who carved the milk out of your skin, who stole my faith?
"See, I told you there was no God," you say.
I weep for you. I wallow in my pain, and yours but you won't have none of that. Something good has to come out of evil, you say. The balance must be brought around. The godless need angels, and sinners - forgiveness. You're in pain, but you're not hurting, you tell me softly as I rear my tears in.
Hope has a tendency of winding itself back in. It comes creeping right back with its soft downy fur and its wet begging eyes. Let me in. I'll be nice this time. Hope is a treacherous brute. But it has brought you back to me.
They refuse to wed us at the mosque. "Haram," they say. "She's your milk sister."
But I don't care. I need no ceremony, no Iman to tell me you're mine. And like that, shunned from the faithful, my love breaks free. You and I, we won't cower and bow our heads in shame.
Let them condemn us, I think as we walk down the alley past the mosque, your small hand in mine. Let them watch us in all our ugliness, in all our glory. Let them gawk and shake their heads at us. Let them see how a man can lead with a gentle heart and a delicate touch. How what used to ache is wrapped in tenderness, abrasiveness and rough edges loved away. From sandpaper to silk, by sheer stubbornness. By hope.
A morning like this, you lying naked on your stomach, facing me. You are strangely peaceful, as if your burns have liberated you.
Your skin, a map of pain, skin graft upon skin graft. Your left ear has melted against your head. Still, you're beautiful when you smile at me. My fingertips follow the patches from your neck to your buttocks. The map, from palest rose to deepest mangosteen purple. I trace the tiny ridges, pursue their jagged edges. I chase the lines left and right, choosing different junctions every time. This map that has led you to me. The sun finally embracing the moon.
Let them judge us, I think as I lie there. Let them frown at how a man can two hard, jagged rocks are slowly shaped, worn soft and smooth by the steady flow of water – like pebbles on the riverbank.
And how hope finds its way to us. Yet again.