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The nightmare again. The water rushed in from nowhere, from everywhere, swallowing him in an instant. He couldn't breathe. Couldn't find a way out. He was going to die --
Ruslan woke with a gasp. His heart thumped. He swung out of bed to stand in front of the second-story window, taking deep breaths of the cool night air. In the distance, beyond the shacks and houses of Ujung Karang, moonlight glittered on the sea. He knew he wouldn't be able to fall asleep again, so he sat down at his desk, turned on the light, and opened his sketch pad.
Four years ago, when he was twelve, he'd had nightmares of a monster. He'd drawn its picture, its scaly body and fanged head and barbed tail, and then ripped the monster in half. The monster never bothered his sleep again.
Perhaps if he could draw the drowning nightmare, he could banish it as well.
But he didn't know how to draw it. He often swam in the rivers and played in the ocean waves, but this drowning water was different. He didn't know its shape or form. All he knew was its color.
After the morning's only customer paid his bill and left the waterfront cafe;, Ruslan sat down at a rickety plywood table shaded by one of the palm trees. He cradled his head on his outstretched arm. His huge yawn nearly dislocated his jaw.
Why was he having such awful nightmares? Perhaps it was the sermon at the mosque the other Friday. The preacher had warned of the coming flood of God's judgment for liars and sinners. Was it a sin to drive his father's motor scooter without a license? Ruslan didn't think so. One could sin against God, sure, but how could one sin against the police?
A breeze ruffled the harbor's water, and the sun twinkled off its surface. Tiny waves lapped against the shore's breakwater. A big tug tied to the pier released its ropes and gunned its diesel, smoke belching from its stack. Its propeller churned the low tide, stirring up black sand and muck into a dark boil. Ruslan frowned, an uneasy feeling pricking him, but the water quickly cleared to its usual murky green. He yawned again. The breeze felt good on his face. His eyes grew heavy. He'd have a quick nap, just a minute's snooze --
"Excuse me. Ah, maaf permisi."
Ruslan's eyes flew open. He jerked upright, staring dumbfounded at the Western family standing before him. Father, mother, daughter, and son, their long noses red from the sun. Even the half-grown orange cat rubbing against the boy's ankle seemed foreign. Had they emerged from out of his sleep?
The big white man held an English-Indonesian dictionary in his hand. He flipped through pages with oil-smudged fingers and found what he was looking for. "Mesin rusak," he said. Broken engine. He nodded over his shoulder at a gleaming white sailboat that had just anchored off the jetty. He flipped more pages. "Bengkel." Mechanic's garage.
Ruslan stood. "I speak English." As well he should. Ever since he was four, he'd been tutored privately in English at his father's insistence.
"You can? Great. One of the fishermen there pointed to you, said your father's a mechanic. At least that's what I thought he said."
Ruslan nodded. "My father is Yusuf the mechanic." Ruslan usually spent most of his free time helping his father in the garage, but he had wanted to earn some money to buy a new set of paintbrushes. A friend had gotten him this part-time job at the cafe;, afternoons after school and all day during Sundays and national holidays, such as today.
The girl stepped forward and squinted at the cafe;'s small display fridge. She and her mother wore long wrinkled dresses, and her mother a head scarf, but the girl's blond hair glowed in the sunlight, her scarf wadded up in her hand. She had the bluest eyes Ruslan had ever seen. The only blue eyes he'd ever seen, at least in real life and not on TV. "Hey," she said, "they have cold Cokes right here."
"Well, I'll be a soda pop," the father said. "Wonder if they have cold beer."
"I'm sorry, no," Ruslan said. "We are a Muslim province. We don't sell alcohol."
"I know. Just fantasizing. Can we have four Cokes?"
As Ruslan got out the drinks, a dozen kids gathered to gawk at the Westerners. Meulaboh, a small harbor town, didn't get nearly as many foreign visitors as the big city of Banda Aceh, with its grand mosques and golden beaches. Several other people sauntered down the breakwater to also have a look at the strangers.
The mother whispered to the girl, "Put on your scarf."
"This stupid dress is enough. I'm drowning in sweat."
"It's the local custom."
"But I'm not a local, am I? If they get offended, it's their problem, not mine."
"Put on your scarf."
"Sarah. Respect their culture."
"I put on my scarf at Banda Aceh. It's their turn to respect my culture."
"If you don't put on your scarf, you go back to the boat."
The daughter glared at her mother, who calmly returned the glare with a level gaze. Ruslan, intently watching this drama out of the corner of his eye, nearly dropped one of the Coke cans as he put them on the table. He couldn't imagine any teenage girl in Meulaboh defying her mother like this. "Fine," the girl snapped, and stalked back toward the jetty, where an inflatable dinghy was tied up to one of the bollards. She paused and said over her shoulder, "You don't have to love me, Mom, but you should at least respect me as much as you do these total strangers."
"Whoa," the freckle-faced boy said. "Sarah's sure in a bad mood."
The mother gave the father an exasperated look, quickly tilting her head at the girl, telling the father to have a word with her. He grabbed a Coke off the table and strode after the girl. Catching up to her, he handed her the soda and spoke with her. She listened, rolling the icy can around her frowning, sweaty face. She shook her head. "I'm not going to wear a scarf just to keep Mom from being embarrassed," she said loudly. Ruslan was sure she meant for her mother to overhear. "That's so hypocritical."
Her father said something that Ruslan didn't fully catch, something about Christmas and family. The girl firmly shook her head. The father gave the mother a big shrug that said I tried and took his daughter out to the boat in the dinghy.
When he returned, he said to his wife, "Our darling daughter's hardly full of Christmas cheer, is she?"
"You shouldn't have let her have the Coke. Coddling her when she's like this doesn't help."
"We'll give her cat food for lunch."
"Steve. That's not funny."
"Just trying to lighten things up. 'Tis the season to be jolly, after all." He paid for the drinks and asked Ruslan, "Where can we find your father?"
The narrow peninsula of Ujung Karang, sticking out of Meulaboh like a tail, was a maze of streets and lanes where thousands of people lived. Ruslan's house and his father's attached garage were at the base of the peninsula, near the big stadium. Haji Kamarudin, a pensioner with gray hair bristling out from underneath his white skullcap, pushed through the crowd and told Ruslan he'd be honored to show the guests the way. He shook hands with the father, mother, and boy, welcoming them to Meulaboh. Ruslan knew the Haji would first detour to his own house, where he'd offer the guests coffee and cakes. He was a grand old man who always had a kind word for everyone and was curious about everything.
"Come on, Surf Cat," the boy called out. The cat trotted off with the humans, tail high in the air.
An hour later the Westerners and the cat reappeared with Ruslan's father Yusuf, who was wearing his mechanic's gray overalls and carrying his satchel of tools. The boy kicked a scuffed soccer ball back and forth with several of the local kids. He looked to be eight or so, and his body hadn't yet grown to match his big, clumsy feet.
Yusuf put a skinny arm around Ruslan. "My son," he said. Yusuf had worked with Exxon in the northern oil fields for four years after the death of Ruslan's mother, and he spoke reasonable English. "No good mechanic, very good artist. He make your picture, okay?"
"Bapa," Ruslan muttered, feeling heat flood his cheeks, although he was pleased. Many fathers would have scolded their sons for such a worthless talent that didn't put rice on the table, but his father was proud of him. He planned to send Ruslan to an arts college in Jakarta.
The group headed for the jetty. "Oh, man," the boy said. "Now we gotta go back to Sarah. If she's still in her stinky mood, can we send her to shore?"
Ruslan wished they would. Those blue eyes. He wanted to study them some more. Politely, of course. Could he capture that color on canvas, show how light filled the blue?
Yusuf fixed the engine, and the sailboat left that afternoon. Ruslan stood under the palms and watched as it motored out to sea. A rush of customers came in, demanding his attention, and when he next looked, the boat was gone, almost as if it had been swallowed up by the deep. Ruslan pondered the ocean, silvered by the late afternoon light. Although there wasn't a storm cloud on the horizon, the ocean's cheerfulness had turned moody, even menacing. In his imagination the silver water slowly blackened --
"Get back to work," his boss yelled at him.
The girl's blue eyes wouldn't leave him alone. That night he ate dinner by himself, as his father was busy doing another emergency repair on a truck. After dinner he went to his bedroom and got out his pad and pencil.
A few months ago one of the town's leading clerics had seen him sketching the face of an old woman and had ripped up the sketch. The making of images was forbidden, the cleric said, as that led to idolatry. For the first time in his life, Ruslan knew that a cleric could be wrong, and his world had cracked a little. He didn't dare sketch in public anymore, but in private he drew anything he wanted. Like the face of this Western girl, drawn from his memory. Using his pastel chalk, he touched the eyes with blue -- not the right blue, he needed oil paints for that -- and put just a hint of red to her lips, smudging the chalk with a wetted finger. He taped the sketch next to the poster of Siti Nurhaliza, the teenage Malaysian pop star he had a crush on. He contemplated both poster and sketch, trying to decide which girl was prettier.
Not that it mattered. Siti lived in a different world, and as for the Western girl, he'd never see her again in his life.
His father knocked on his door. He'd showered and had changed out of his gray overalls into a sarong. "Is everything okay?"
"You look tired. How are things at the coffee shop?"
"I know one thing now, Bapa. I don't want to work for other people. I want to be my own boss, have people work for me."
"It's good to have a job first, though," his father responded. "That way when you're a boss you'll know what it's like to be an employee."
Ruslan hesitated. "Bapa, last week I borrowed your motor scooter without asking. I'm sorry."
His father seemed startled. Then he laughed. "Did you borrow my helmet, too?"
"Good. Always wear a helmet. Listen, I'm going to be up early before dawn prayers to go work on the Pertamina oil tanker. I'll be home very late."
Before Ruslan went to bed, he gazed out the window. In the outer harbor the oil tanker was placidly at anchor. The big ship cast a moon shadow on the water. The single cloud in the sky fell across the moon, and the sea darkened, obscuring the tanker. A shivery feeling raced from Ruslan's neck down to his arms. Then the cloud moved off, the light returned, and the ship reappeared in the night's sparkling sea.
Copyright © 2006 by Richard Lewis