Still Waters

Theodora Sutcliffe

The ferry towers above Amran, twice the height of the tallest coconut palm, a floating city home to more people than the island his family has left behind. Around him, vendors bustle and badger, touting iced tea, instant noodles, hard-boiled eggs, steamed peanuts strung together by their stems. A pink plastic toy waving translucent tendrils with sparkling lights catches the nine-year-old’s eye and the salesman swoops. ‘Dad! Please?’

But Amran shakes his head. He has no money to waste. He will need all their resources to set up in their new home. 

‘Just thirty thousand,’ the vendor says.

Amran raises an open palm. 

‘Twenty.’

‘Thank you,’ Amran says, palm still raised.

‘Dad!’

‘Leave your father be,’ Hadijah says. Their daughter subsides and the salesman moves on.

Worry gnaws at Amran’s belly. He was born on Kalamosang. And, until the fish left, he always thought that he would die there, be buried with his grandparents, his parents, the sisters who passed as babies, and his beloved brother. He knows he may not be welcome where they are going.

A horn blares; a soldier unhooks the chain from the gateway; and the crowd surges onto the pier. A porter in a purple polo shirt gestures at the compressor that embodies the family’s fortune. ‘It’s fifty kilos,’ Amran tells him. ‘Be careful.’

Two wiry, scrawny guys hoist the machine above their heads; a third scoops implausible stacks of IndoMie boxes onto his shoulders. Amran wrangles the outboard; his sons carry what remains; Hadijah rolls the sleeping mats and holds their little girl’s hand.

At the gangplank, they hold out their wrists: the magic stamp glows purple in the torchlight. And then they’re on, into the heavy, smoky scent of fuel oil, and scaling the green metal steps to the stairhead at deck four. 

This will do, Amran thinks. He nods to the porters, who put their burdens down, and hands a hundred thousand note to the big man. Working as a team, his family creates a little camp that will be home for the next three days. The outboard and compressor create a barrier between the sleeping mats and the bulkhead; the noodle cartons that contain their worldly goods form walls on either side.

The call to prayer undulates from a mosque on shore and, fractionally out of sync, a recorded version blares from a grid above their heads. The Pelni ferry has a finality that the local boat from Kalamosang lacked. This is it, Amran thinks. The lights of Makassar are the last they will ever see of South Sulawesi. As if she has read his mind, Hadijah reaches out and squeezes his hand.

*****

By the second day, Amran and his family are in their stride. The camp feels like home; foraging missions gather meal-time food packages and doubled plastic cups of sticky coffee. The bragging, tuneless nonsense Lukman loves jangles from his phone; Mahmud is deep in a game; their sister nestles against her mother, who is sleeping.

Amran grabs his cigarettes, makes his way out onto deck and takes his place on a hardwood bench. There is no land in sight, and he’s struck by the vastness of the ocean, smooth as plastic sheeting. A man comes and sits beside him and, even over the sweet, resinous clove tobacco smoke, Amran can smell the stale lotion scent of wet wipes. He must have been travelling for many days.

‘From Makassar?’ his companion asks.

‘From a little island three hours from there,’ Amran says. ‘The name is Kalamosang. And you?’

‘Seram. Near Ambon. Coming home from the mines.’

‘Papua?’ 

The guy nods. ‘To where?’

‘To the Bandas. For the fish.’

The guy nods again, sagely. ‘My father was a fisherman. There’s still good fishing there. And in Papua, too. In the Ampat islands.’

‘We have no fish left in Kalamosang now,’ Amran says. ‘When I was a child, we had such wonderful fish: grouper, snapper, coral trout, napoleon fish… Whale sharks came through every year.’

The guy nods. ‘It’s a hard job, fishing. The mines are better. They say you can’t eat metal, but it’s better eating than an empty net.’

Amran laughs, companionably. They smoke and watch the silent sea until a young guy pulls out a guitar and starts to sing.

*****

It is clove harvest in Ambon and as the ship hugs the shoreline the piny tingle of sun-drying buds drifts into Amran’s nostrils, a gentle top note over the coarse base of smoke and fuel oil. They have nutmeg in the Bandas, he has heard. Perhaps Hadijah can plant a tree or two.

His neighbour this time is from the Kei Islands and has recognised Amran’s compressor. ‘It was my brother who bought it,’ Amran says. ‘We were a team.’

The further he gets from Kalamosang, the more Amran misses his big brother, Ali. ‘He passed?’ his neighbour asks.

‘Three years ago.’ 

‘The bends?’ 

Amran gestures assent.

Ali was the strangest mixture. Cautious with money, but his blood ran hot. He had taught Amran everything he knew about compressor diving: how to keep the hose tight and guard against snags, how to always test whether you can pee, how you must never, ever rush an ascent. But a sea spirit must have possessed him that day. 

The sea around Kalamosang housed many spirits. Some took the form of giant groupers; others embodied long-dead ancestors; still more hid in the cold gusts from the deep that chilled a diver to the bone and set the water shimmering.

There was a distant patch of reef and a time, around the full moon each year, that only the islanders knew, when uncountable thousands of big, fat, juicy grouper came out of their hiding places and swarmed like mosquitoes. 

Amran and Ali flitted among the grouper on the wild ocean currents, hunting in the cloudy water like the sleek and silvery sharks that darted through them. They travelled down then up and down then up again, filling the barrel, racing to the pen, then filling the barrel again.

Amran remembers his brother surfacing for the last time, net laden with grouper, and the horror in his eyes as his mask filled with blood. They headed for shore, of course, where Amran fed him beer to warm him, to calm the itching sensation in his body. When Ali lost control of his legs and then his bowels, Hadijah ran for the medium. But by morning he was dead.

‘To where?’ Amran’s companion asks.

‘The Banda Islands. I heard there is good fishing there, on Ai.’

‘You’ll need to be careful.’

Amran frowns. The closer he gets, the more the worry gnaws at his guts.

There is a crackle and a disembodied voice summons travellers to the pantry to collect their midday meal. For a moment, Amran stares at the sea. He had hoped to see dolphins, maybe even orca, but there are none.

*****

When they reach the Bandas on the third day, it is morning. Amran has never seen a volcano before, but Gunung Api’s conical shape is unmistakable, even if the cloud that encircles the summit holds rain, not smoke. 

The purple-clad porters who wrangle the compressor and their boxes look the same as they did fifteen hundred kilometres ago in Makassar. But everything else is new and unfamiliar. The islands here are rugged, rocky, tree-clad, not low-lying droplets of sand. The vendors sell strange snacks: nut brittle, candied nutmeg fruit, whole smoked fish on bamboo skewers. A fat, white bird coos from the tallest tree Amran has ever seen.

Amran sets his family up in the shade outside the port and sets out. He has never seen an island as clean as Banda Neira, its neat streets lined with old houses and grand pillared verandahs. Some have metal cannons outside them, so old they’ve turned green; others have plastic signs that tell a story. But the words are too long for Amran to read, and anyway he is here to buy a boat.

Amran takes his time over negotiations, checking his options carefully. At a concrete pier in front of a grand white palace with a lawn of pillowy grass, he finds what he needs: a solid fibreglass craft that will support the weight of his gear..

The route to Pulau Ai is easy in the late afternoon sun. Once Amran clears the narrow channel between the volcano and the big island, he sees it, dark with trees, a slim white ribbon of beach, dead ahead. The man who sold him the boat has given him clear instructions and Amran finds the gap in the reef with ease.

Rents are high here, he has learned. It must be the nutmeg. Amran can see it drying on verandahs and doorsteps, alongside scraps of a strange scarlet webbing. He sees Hadijah marvel at these slim, well-swept streets with their smart homes, built in cement and floored with tiles, painted in green or orange or pale pink or brilliant purple, their gardens alive with flowers.

He finds a guesthouse for the night, on a sand street near what was once a fort. In Makassar they slept in a grimy hovel where rats raced up and down the stairs. On Ai, the place is spotless. The white tiled floors are so shiny that they reflect coloured echoes of the brocade chairs. While it’s bliss to pour the cool water over his skin, sluice away the smell of wet wipes and change into his sarong, Amran feels sad to sully the pristine bathroom floor.

Dinner is a feast: fresh-cooked rice, vegetable soup, eggplants with a mild sauce made from a nut Amran doesn’t know, dense slabs of fish carved from a snapper that must have weighed five kilos. Amran reels at the abundance.

Word spreads fast that a new family has arrived and is looking for a home. So abundant is this island that there are several for rent. Amran will start small, he figures, then get the community on board. When they realise the money they can earn, they will come to see things his way.

*****

The house Amran rents is perfect for his needs. It will be a long walk to the mosque and the school, of course, and to the well where the women gather and chatter over laundry. It lacks the bright colours of the houses Hadijah eyed in the village and it’s not much bigger than the bamboo and rattan home they shared when the boys were small, before the compressor came. But it’s built on stilts, over the water, and it’s the only house on the beach.

Hadijah wanted to live in the village, but Amran needs privacy. There is, at least, a nutmeg tree, which mollifies her. The owner built it for tourists, he says, but they never seemed to find it until it was too late. They’d stumble on it at the end of their stay, say ‘Maybe next time,’ or ‘Wish I’d known,’ but not one ever came back.

The house is awash with sand and dust, dead insects and desiccated geckoes, but Amran has tested the timber and it’s solid. 

The family works as a unit. Mother and daughter sweep and clean. Amran and the boys build a bamboo raft to support their fish pen, tow it out and anchor it off the fringing reef. The electricity comes on, night falls and Hadijah prepares rice and instant noodles on the two-ring stove she brought from Kalamosang.

Ai isn’t home, yet. Kalamosang was in Amran’s bones. His family had lived there since his grandfather gave up his houseboat and built his first stilt home. Two generations had learned their letters at the same tiny island school. All Amran’s family but him have died there, too: he and his children are the last of their line. Still, if he plays his cards right, Ai could come to feel like home. The islanders will accept him. They will have to accept him. He is bringing them a gift.

*****

Amran and the boys rise early, and when the dawn call to prayer echoes across the island they are already on the water, clad in black from head to toe. 

Today is more an exploration than anything else, to identify the most promising fishing grounds. The islands here are more populous than Kalamosang and Amran lacks the support of the community. Ultimately, he will need to negotiate, distribute shares, pay bribes.

For a moment, he wishes his brother were here to advise him, to reassure him that everything will be okay. But Amran is the big man now, the head of the family, its fortune and its future in his hands.

Wincing inwardly at the fuel he is burning, Amran follows the vague directions he received from the man who owned his boat to a patch of reef far out to sea. It is Mahmud who spots it first. As they grow closer, the blue water darkens, then thins from opaque to translucent to almost transparent. A black blur of reef shades into recognisable coral structures, silhouetted against the pale seabed first in navy, then in bronze.

Amran hawks phlegm into the water to judge the current. The pace seems manageable and he dons mask, weight belt, regulator and fins. Mahmud will mind the engine while Lukman tends the compressor, watches the tension on the hose, and feels for the twin tugs that signal Amran must ascend.

Mouthpiece clamped between his teeth, Amran sinks into the ocean’s cool embrace and begins his slow descent, paying out the hose through the strange currents of a new sea. His breathing steadies and slows; he pinches his nose, exhales and clears the pressure from his eardrums with a muted clunk; as the water compresses his organs, the weights shift slightly on his hips.

As Amran fins gently down through sparkling clouds of damselfish and surgeonfish into the forest of brain and staghorn corals, he sees the beauty of it, compared to Kalamosang’s blackened and rubbled reef. A turquoise parrotfish is grazing on staghorn and, over the slow, steady throb of his bubbles, Amran hears the scritching of its beak. He scans the wall that drops to the deep ocean, and a second parrotfish shits a cloud of powdery sand.

Amran drifts with the current and lets his gaze flow too. And then he sees it. Not a grouper. Something better. A coral trout, shimmering red and speckled with white, hovering low behind a pale pink sea fan. He estimates its weight at a kilo, the perfect size for the live fish trade.

As he glides towards his prey, Amran feels his body and the water become one. He reaches for the bottle in his leggings, removes the cap, and administers a carefully judged squeeze. The cloud of cyanide blooms around the sea fan like fresh cotton; the fish slows, wobbles like a drunk, and hangs motionless in the water column; and on Pulau Ai, too, the coral begins to die.

Theodora Sutcliffe

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

A recovering nomad, Theodora Sutcliffe spent four years travelling the world with her son, and has been exploring Indonesia for over a decade. Currently based in Bali, she’s covered travel for publications including the BBC, The Guardian, CNN and National Geographic Traveler, but is increasingly focused on sustainability and the environment. She recently completed Curtis Brown Creative’s competitive entry Writing Your Novel course and is working on a novel. Her short stories have been published in titles including Molecule and Voidspace, and shortlisted for the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize.

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