In the Beginning
Nelson, New Zealand
Here Julia and I are, down by the creek below the yellow house the last summer she is with us. Picking at sandfly bites on our shins, our hair damp and coiled on our necks. Hair cut short like boys’ because it is easier for our mother, and our father says it will keep the devil and bad men away. I, eight, and knowing all about what can lurk in the smooth depths. Julia, five, already wanting to see. Both of us shocking ourselves in the cold, knees hunched to our chests, curling against thoughts of dark bodies of eels slipping down in the darker and darker green. Flat grey rocks in the sun where we lie like chicken thighs bumped together in a pan, burning pink patches on our backs, then jumping into the water to shock ourselves pale again. Warm skin, cool milk in glass bottles, the bees in the weeds.
In the days while we waited for Julia to die, and before my father decided that atonement was in order and the mountains of Irian Jaya were just the place to find it, I sat for hours behind the bathroom block at school, poking a stick into a decades-old bullet hole in the concrete wall. Playground wisdom said that hole could have been caused by practically anything. Stray hunter’s shot, target practice, murder.
An accident, they said, when they talked about what happened to Julia: the social worker, the police, the doctors who all wore the same brand of brown leather shoes. And of course it was, but when a five-year-old dies it is like a plane crash, a hit-and-run. It is easier if there is someone to blame.
The children at school blamed the taniwha that lived below Mr Ashton’s vineyard. The newspapers blamed Common Household Hazards and Parental Negligence. The pastor and the fat ladies wrapped in florals at church blamed The Fallen World, and probably The Breakdown of the Nuclear Family. Our dad blamed Miriam, our mother, because she was not there when the flames first caught. Our mother blamed him (and maybe, partly, me) because at that time she blamed Dad for her whole life, and Julia dying was just part of the package.
Julia burned and it took three days for her to die. Like Jesus, I thought then, only later I realised I had the story backwards. Besides, Jesus did not burn. When Julia’s nightgown caught a flame from the fireplace, there was a rush of heat and sparks like fireflies. Too-black eyes in a white, white face. The quilt our grandmother gave our mother on her wedding day. The smell of melted plastic, charred wool and something else, something I still do not know how to name.
One day the yellow house held Julia’s voice, and then it did not. One day I was a sister, and then I was not. One day we were in a dream world, where Julia was dead and the space where she once was became large and silent, and then we were in another country altogether — where stories and voices made their way into our house any way they could. They heaved under the floorboards, whispered in the windows. Creaked in the attic like a python grown too big on rats. And I collected them all to fill that silence Julia left. At first it was like I was grasping at fireflies and could only catch one at a time. But, as my body grew with all these stories, as my mouth widened to fit other languages inside, I tried
to collect more and more. And I was afraid, so afraid, of even one voice escaping and being lost forever — like Julia’s voice that was in my ear for five years, then gone. Now I am older and my body can no longer hold them all, so I have started compiling scraps and fragments of what I remember, what I kept. This is why we have this book.
Before we left Nelson, my grandfather came to the yellow house and gave me two books. The first was a guide to the flora and fauna of New Guinea. Maybe this will give you something to write to me about, he said. Tell me what you see. We looked through the pages together. We practised saying the scientific names. I liked the parts about the plants best because they were so brightly coloured. It was hard to imagine the animals and flowers on those pages becoming a part of my own world. They looked like things that could only belong on pages or on a screen. The second book was The Swiss Family Robinson. It had a picture of a shipwreck on the front and, in the background, a zebra and human silhouettes against palm trees. In that book there was a mother who wasn’t like my mother at all and a father who was someone I think my father would have liked to be. Be glad you’re not going by ship, my grandfather said. Thus armed, he could send me anywhere.
My grandmother gave me a dream-catcher like the ones in her spare room that my dad called cheap hippy nonsense (and even Grandma said she did not really know what they were for and she liked them only because the sixties happened and her ones were easy to make). Julia and I used to play with them during visits. Grandma made the one she gave me out of blue wool and brown twine, feathers dipped in gold paint hanging from its round belly. She said that this way we would be connected like the way the wool reaches out and wraps around its hoop. Julia always liked to make the feathers swing. Dad used to come with us on those visits, to share a beer and biscuits with my grandfather and talk about the apples, but Mum would have washing to do, a floor to vacuum, a headache to get rid of. Tell her we send our love, Grandma used to say. We always did and Mum always said she’d come with us Next Time, which is a time that is stuck in the future, always right before you so you can see it but not reach it.
In our old-new village house, I would hang the catcher above my bed and wonder if the dreams it caught were the ones already in my head, going out into the world after they were finished, or if they were dreams that were trying to find their way to me. I know now that dreams and plants have something in common — you can try to make them do what you want, but you cannot know exactly how they will turn out. They have lives of their own. That is why I prefer dreams and plants to histories. Histories are too much about joining the dots. Dreams and plants are about living, with histories still growing through them.
Twenty years later, the guidebook’s pages and spine have subsided under the weight of my amendments to its entries, the stuffing of extra pages in between chapters, the torn-out pages from when I understood everything that was missing from them. It was never made to hold all the stories, all the voices, not even all of the plants and animals. I left Irian Jaya while still a child, but returned twice — once as an adolescent and once as an adult. The stories I collected then supplement the earlier memories. Now, in another country, in greenhouses, I grow the plants I first saw in the guidebook pages. Banana, papaya, tea tree, all manner of orchids. Breadfruit, fern, hibiscus, palm. I have hope that the bodies of plants and of animals and of people hold stories and possibilities better than books ever can — possibilities for both Julia and the land once called Irian Jaya. But, all the same, I cannot help myself from trying to order both Julia and what is now Papua in these pages. Even as I can feel them slipping away from me, multiplying out of control.
This telling is supposed to be a kind of healing, though it will not be able to tell everything and it might not always look like a healing — just as a wound’s pre-scab cell bloom masks its own growth. I will show the shine on our mother’s hair after she washes it on a frosted Sunday night before we leave for that village called Yuvut in the mountains, a village that is not even named on most maps. Show the curve of an orchid petal fallen in the thick syrup water that collects in the hollows of a rotting stump. Show how the body of a lost plane sinks and crumbles like a once living thing. Paint the clouds that gather in pillars above a jungle’s impossible glaciers, hot air meeting cool. Give smoke on a tongue, sweat on the backs of knees, the voice of an unseen bird dripping through the forest canopy like water.
When we flew on the plane towards Irian Jaya that first time, I looked at its body on those maps you get in the inflight magazines so I could trace how far we had come and how far there was still to go. The island of New Guinea has a bird’s body, the body of the most important bird on the island — the bird of paradise. The head and chest belong to Irian Jaya, which was then and still is today part of Indonesia but reincarnated under another name. The rest of the torso and tail belong to Papua New Guinea, which is a different country even though nothing but a thin black line separates it from its other half.
Later I read in my guidebook how Malay traders visiting the edges of New Guinea called the bird of paradise burung mati, the dead bird. Because it was so beautiful, all they ever saw of it was the feathers or the skins prepared to be sold all in a row or mounted on someone’s headdress. But I did not see a dead bird when I looked at that bird’s body on the long flight. It looked like it was ready to grow wings and fly away, right out of my magazine pages. It did not look like it was supposed to be stuck there above Australia with no way to escape. It looked alive. It looked like it could shake itself free and tear its feathers from the blue grasping sea. It looked wide-mouthed and angry.
We arrived in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, in 1997 with hard-shelled suitcases, extra locks, and a crate of cheap eyeglasses donated by a non-profit to spread as we saw fit. We arrived with pamphlets on AIDS, dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis — all in a language that neither we nor the people we would live with could speak. We arrived with avocado seedlings wrapped in old rice sacks, and twenty-three live baby rabbits in cardboard boxes that used to package two-minute noodles. In the white-tiled Bali airport, before the last flight to Irian Jaya, I could see a black-spotted ear poking out of one of the holes Dad made with his pocketknife so that the rabbits could breathe.
Out we tipped from the plane, lurching forward with the weight of our bags. Out into the glare of sun on tarmac. We were in a world that trapped us like flies under an upturned glass, waiting for a magnified beam of sunlight to scorch us like grass.
There were vans the drivers called taxis, all in a row, lined up in front of the airport. Two children pressed their faces against the car-park fence and stared at me. I stared back. One wore a shirt that advertised FREE KONDOMS and a happy smile.
I don’t know where to look, said Mum. I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the shirt or something else. We got into one of the vans, pressed our legs into broken vinyl seats. Apart from the seats, the interior of the van had no panels or linings like I was used to seeing in cars — it was gutted, a shell in the heat.
The air was swollen. In it everything seemed to float as if suspended on an invisible fishing line: the noon call to prayer, the scents of clove cigarettes and petrol, spits of grease as bananas fried in a roadside cart, an old man with his shirt off selling watermelons and papayas under a tree. Sweat on his nipples. I counted crumpled soft-drink cans and plastic bags caught in power lines, in trees. Motorcycles poured from every direction on to the streets, like ants boiling from a nest. There was one traffic light that flashed pink for stop and blue for go. No one paid it any attention. A woman fanned herself by a cart of glass Pepsi bottles filled with liquid the colour of dehydrated pee. Later I would know these bottles were filled with petrol for the motorcycles that lined up for hours.
This is Sentani, Dad told me, named for the wrinkle-free lake that feeds the clusters of rusted houses on stilts that crop up on its shore. Our door into the jungle, into the mountains that rose far off in the distance under heavy clouds. I wondered how clean the jungle was in Dad’s mind, how untouched like the cream that rises to the surface of raw milk. Somehow, I already knew he would be disappointed.
Look, Ruth, a hornbill, said Mum. She let go of the bag she clutched so tight to point for me. There were patterns from the seat on the backs of her arms. The bird she pointed at wandered along small tin-roofed shops that sold potato chips and lollipops. A bit of red string trailed from one of its legs. Dad smiled and went on trying to talk to the driver in English.
Have you lived here long? he asked.
Here? said the driver. Oh no, no, no.
You’re from somewhere else then?
Yes, yes, yes. I want to go to America. Bring back lots of money.
Why you only have one child? Have older ones, yes?
No, just a daughter.
One. Singular. No ‘s’ tacked on the end. A youngest daughter erased as easily as a single letter.
The driver sucked the air between his teeth. You have a son? Yes. Don’t worry.
Dad gave up. A burst of fluorescent green hugged the base of the mountain watching over all of this, over all of us.
Mount Cyclops, said our driver, only he said it like Siiklop. Still, this was a word I knew, a word that came complete with illustrations of Greek mythology in a corner of free-reading time during some past slow school day. Grey beards, a flowing tunic. I looked for the single eye and saw only a waterfall, weeping white.
‘Community development’ was scribbled on our visas. Dad could build things, could plant things. Things like a village hospital, like avocado trees. Mum could mother and hand out whatever she was given. Glasses, rabbits, pamphlets. We would run a breeding programme with the rabbits. They would multiply and so would the avocados. We would fill village bellies with protein, turn malnutrition into smiles. It was all in the letter that Dad was given in a shining Wellington office. It was all in the brochures that promised this would make us good.
It will be good for us, Dad told Mum late one night in the yellow house. Dad had always meant to do something like this, something like helping people, or so he said. Now was their chance, at a time when their lives, our lives, were all up in the air, floating like lost dandelion seeds hoping to land somewhere sure and firm. I listened to my parents while squatting in the shadows of the hall when I should have been in bed. Dad, going to the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea, must have seen me there but he didn’t tell. He went back to her chair and held Mum’s hand.
It won’t be for long, but it will give us something to do. We have to do something.
It feels like forgetting, said Mum. And this doesn’t change anything.
Not forgetting. We’re making the best out of a bad thing.
One year, said Mum.
Government contractors were building a road from the town nearest to our assigned village, according to the man who met us at the guesthouse in Sentani with fried snacks for my parents, hard coffee-flavoured lollies for me. A road that would cut through the mountains like they weren’t there, forge rivers, smooth hills. It would meet Dad at the hospital in two, maybe three years. Five years tops, the man said. He wore a uniform, but I couldn’t tell what kind of uniform it was and his accent didn’t fit the accents I knew either, though he looked Indonesian. Here, things and people did not fit easily into the categories I used to have.
Six years at most, if things really turn to custard. All Dad had to do was meet that road with his hospital. Dad did the talking with the man. He winked at Mum now and then. One year, said his eyelid going down. One year. Don’t worry.
They told me not to smile when we went to get our visa photos taken against a red velvet drape that the camera would turn a faded grey. Looking at them made me think of Julia’s dresses, her tee-shirts, and how already I could not always remember what colours they were. Dad collected rows of headshots for all of us in his money pouch. Paperwork sprouted as much as trees in that place.
We went to the police station and gave the police our fingerprints. There was no running water at the station to wash the ink off our hands, so we wiped them on Dad’s shorts. They’ll be my new-old work shorts, he said. The policemen liked to watch Mum, hold her hand too long when they pressed her fingers into the inkpads and then onto the paper.
Dutch New Guinea, West Irian, Irian Jaya, West Papua. The name of this province changed (and still changes). Its history is one of invasions and divisions. Everyone hungry for a piece of ‘Java’s Kitchen’. Take some sandalwood here, some oil there, and don’t forget the gold and copper. Dad told me about the big invasions (the Dutch, the explorers, the Americans and Japanese and Australians in the Second World War, the missionaries, the miners, the Indonesian Army). He told me about the man called Suharto in Java, and how he once was a general who took power in the middle of the night. It was Suharto who was President in 1969, when Indonesia officially grew by over 162,000 square miles, thanks to Papua. The United front half of New Guinea’s bird body remained separated from
its back half, its sweeping tail, because the Indonesian Army
had guns and friends, and the men in offices thought that
Papua’s bird mouth would never open and speak for itself. And
it was Suharto who, in 1997 (the man would not die!), still held
Papua in his hand.
Over time I learned of the smaller invasions, too. I learned about the weaver ants that hitchhiked into the highlands in sugar sacks. From an airport hangar they spread outwards, forever marching downhill. African snails were brought into the swamp regions. Like a wave, they guzzled everything green. Back in the highlands again, Australian missionaries brought lantana with them in the 1970s, and vegetables in abandoned gardens were gently strangled. After small Cessna aeroplanes started servicing the Mamberamo (that region where rivers snake across the landscape like trails of some impossibly large creature), walking catfish appeared and multiplied. And then there were the macaque monkeys that made their homes in colonies near the coast after transmigrants brought them there from other Indonesian islands. Overseas animal rights activists insisted that they be left alone rather than shot. Because, after all, they did not ask to be migrants themselves. Whole (human) transmigrant camps relocated (yet again) as they escaped from the thievery of the monkeys.
Then came rabies; now comes AIDS. Men with government badges shipped prostitutes, HIV-positive, to Papua. Look at Java! Free of AIDS! They gloated while health workers in Papua told villagers that only bad people get AIDS so they were safe, they were fine, they could spread their money, spread their legs.
Some people thought the land of Papua was dying. They thought its earthquakes that sent the bird’s head into spasms and its rivers bleeding copper were its aggressive death throes.
But we thought it looked like the most living land we had ever seen. We thought this meant we could come alive again here, too.