The Last Time
What I’ve done I’ve done. What’s left is little.
Uphill, the villagers are harvesting. Down by the
shore, at the resort, they are cleaning, cooking, laundering, massaging. The
mistress of my end shuttles between my bedside and the dirt yard where she
cooks, a quiet infant sashed to her back. She has just prepared a pot of rice
porridge. It must be an hour after dawn. It’s the last time I will eat rice
If I could just shift a little, I would see a flare of
red orange: hibiscus petals lingering in full bloom on the damp earth. But I
can only look through the doorway as it is, or around the warm, dark hut, or
over the wasteland of my body, idle beneath the sheet. I look through the
doorway. There is no sky, not from this position, only an open fire and sunlit
green and the thatched overhang of the porch where I used to escape the sun and
the torrential rains, where it’s always cooler, where outside the other huts
women work and babes are reared.
Several children crowd the doorway. Their faces are
shadowy. Their uncombed heads look arrayed with palm fronds. She may have sent
them to check on me. They may be asked whether they notice any change. For a
while it’s as if they are paralyzed, unable to return to their games. They push
their fingers into their mouths and pull up fistfuls of their long shirts. They
are not old enough to wear underpants. The mothers of the village used to give
me their infants to hold, believing that a foreigner would bring them luck. A
few have ended up straggling to major cities, to larger islands, worldly in
their way. If that can count as luck.
She scatters the children and comes to sit on the edge
of my bed with a bowl of porridge. The infant, chubby imp of her mature years,
tugs her headscarf towards his mouth. I groan; she holds still. After the
difficult moment passes, she props up my head and feeds me a few spoonfuls of
warmth. My sheets smell sour but there’s little purpose in having her take them
to the river. I ask her to open the window. The window is a door turned on its
side and let into the back wall of my hut, alongside my bed. I used to be able
to open it on my own, maybe a week ago. She stands and leans over me to prop it
with a foot-long stick.
Everything is vague. I don’t sleep at night. I close
my eyes and sleep.
A rooster’s tail, silvery green, is passing back and
forth beneath the window when I wake. The mistress of my end is squatting out
near the fire, framed by the doorway. She feeds the flames with coconut husks,
checks the pot, and stirs. Later she pours the dense syrup into rings of bamboo
and leaves it to cool. Yesterday I could hear him from a nearby hut, the villager
who fell harvesting palm buds and was carried home and lay moaning with his
injuries. I must ask about him. Dead, she says. I close my eyes and listen to
the birds scratching the tin roof overhead. It’s stuffy in the hut. I think of
coolness, of flow, and see in my mind’s eye white sap raveling down around the
scored bark of the rubber trees and sluicing along the midrib of a green leaf, drizzling
into a can. I see water traveling from the weir uphill, cool water gurgling
into the village along an aqueduct of bamboo piping. Do I have any fears? Yes.
I fear getting well again. But I need not have that fear.
I try to stay awake. Sleep is pointless but sleep is
difficult to resist, especially during the day. At night a fantasia of memory
keeps me awake. The villagers fear the night. Ghosts live in the banana trees,
they say. A man like me, indisposed to the supernatural, has for these years
been surrounded by well-meaning mystics. I can appreciate the banana ghosts and
the drums they play in their ceremonies, the arcane rhythms beat out on hides
stretched over oil barrels, rhythms that beat down the frets of mind.
Thankfully there are too few souls in the village to support a mosque. Day in
day out the metallic call to prayer would disturb the tranquility of the place.
We are near the sea, yet for reasons that have never
been clear to me, the people of the village are not fishermen. They grow
bananas and rice, tap three or four groves for rubber, and make palm sugar.
More recently, some of them have found work at the resort. They think the
resort has improved their lives. I used to wonder whether it has made them
dependent. Meanwhile I try not to think of the plastic bags and containers they
bring to the village and eventually discard. The elders tell about the coming
of mirrors. Now it’s the coming of plastic.
She’s feeding a sliver of papaya to the little green
bird whose leg she’s tied to a crosspiece on my porch. The papaya … I can taste
its chalky succulence, and she knows I can, and she brings me a sliver. My
tongue accidentally brushes her rough finger. She draws back and giggles.
Bahar. She must have been an adolescent when I first settled in her village.
She understands me better now than she ever did before, now that I’m dying in
her care, gaunt man in a gloomy hut. Such gentle treatment, such wordless
sympathy. Gentle and sympathetic towards me at least. Maybe a week after I fell
ill, a month ago now, a thin green snake slithered into the hut. She charged in
after it with a broom of twigs. The snake darted beneath the bed. It’s OK, I
said. I’m dying. Not yet, she said, and shoved the broom under the bed and
pulled the snake out, broken, by the tail. We both know I have little time. We
both know I could waste that time lamenting the breakdown of my body. I feared
that most, making a fuss. When I first came here, I made certain promises to
the village headman. He’d studied a year in the capital in the sixties, when
the village was more populous, before the island-wide migrations out of the
rural areas, before other islanders were displaced here, before the violence,
before the long knives and the quick, heady slaughter and then his rediscovery
of a contemplative rural Islam. He told me a story passed down from his
grandparents. A merchant had one day brought a mirror to the village and for a
time everyone was distracted, upset by its powers. I promised him that I hadn’t
come to change the villagers or disturb them. My ambition was to merge
seamlessly into the seasons of their lives. I’m restless, I said. I’ve been
restless my entire life. Here you will find rest, he said. And so it was
decided: I would own the house for the length of my life and lease the land.
Since then I haven’t traveled more than fifty miles away. What a mystery I must
have been to them, once, when I first settled in this village uphill from
nowhere. Now I’m probably no more anomalous than a mirror or the resort.
Please, they will wrap me in a sheet and bury me within hours of the end, as
they would their own.
The fly won’t leave my face. I want to cry out. Bahar.
I puff weakly in its direction. The fat, black, dirty tickling circles back and
lands again. Finally she checks on me. She fans it away and lights a candle
nearby. The difficult moment has passed. I nod off.
That was a restful absence, untroubled by dreams or by
pain. I do have one wish, that it didn’t hurt for the blind man to massage my
legs and feet. Instead of the masseuse, the itinerant medicine man pays a visit.
He understands my condition but enters my hut regardless and sets out his glass
jars on the empty bedside stool: herbs, tree bark, seeds; eels and white eggs
in liquid. I don’t understand what he’s saying about a jar of sand-colored
powder, so he smiles and unfolds a magazine page and shows me a sensationally
endowed African boffing a Slavic-looking woman. He laughs. I smile weakly. I
whisper that there’s no cure for death and praise Allah because otherwise
there’d be no cure for life, and he grows pensive and seals his eyes and
whispers a prayer. I wait for him to finish. Funny cigarettes? I ask, and he
looks back at the doorway and brings out a fold of newspaper from a pocket of
his jellabiya. He rubs a dried stalk
over the palm of one hand, rolls a joint, lights it, and holds it to my lips.
He has a web-like scar over half of his face because a spider peed on him, the
villagers say. We toke back and forth until it’s a nub that he drops out the
window. Ascending each plateau, I lift away, heavy then light, a comforting
warmth in my loins, dead coldness in my legs and feet, and I realize again that
the unorthodox make the most congenial company.
When I drift back down, it’s nearly nightfall and I’m
alone. I hear the voices of the other villagers and feel a spasm of regret and
chide myself for not paying attention because this is the last time I will be
able to pay attention. Bahar brings a storm lantern into the darkened hut and
returns with a bowl, probably of rice porridge. I shake my head. She leans over
me and drops the window and brings a tub of water and wipes me down with a warm
rag. I can’t turn over, please don’t turn me over, I say, though she knows, and
I pant until the tizzy of fear subsides. When I’m calm again, she takes the
lantern and leaves me in a rush of flashing darkness. The villagers on their porches
are eating rice with their hands and gabbing. This is the last time I will hear
them eating, laughing, the last time I will be charmed by their inscrutable
lives, the simplicity of their humor, their apparent lack of boredom, the last
time I will smell the sea, if I really am smelling the sea, if I’m not just
imagining it, the colorful wooden boats rising and falling on the waves, the
bamboo fishing platforms in the wide gulf, men at dawn panning for gold at the
shoreline, boys kicking up golden powder playing football on the beach at dusk,
children flying kites of colorful paper and bamboo. I used to spend some time
with a boy of the village, flying his kite. That was the closest to fatherhood
I ever came. Or when he was older, you in boots, he in flip-flops, he led you
up the hill along the aqueduct and further up to the weir, yellow leaves and
red leaves flashing in the current, and you left the creek and walked through
the plantations and along the edge of the paddies and over the hill into higher
hills. You bathed in the crystalline pool below the waterfall and on the way
back a storm broke, and he snapped two enormous leaves from a banana tree and
you walked home holding a leaf over your head. Strange what you never expect to
lose, and lose. That was the last time you saw him. He moved to the city and
was killed in an accident and his mother mounted his road-scraped helmet on the
scarecrow in her paddy. They are flashing over the weir, the bright dead
leaves. They are churned under, resurface, are carried away. That was the last
time I became angry. That was the last time I saw the sea. That was the last
time I went walking in the hills. That was the last time I insisted on
anything. That was the last time I felt doubt. That was the last time I felt
regret. That was the last time I left my hut. That was the last time I spoke to
the village headman. That was the last time I yearned. Did you think you’d be
spared? Not death, but the natural elegy that is life on earth? Sometimes I
rushed at life and caught hold of it. Sometimes, a coward in the wings, I held
back. But that was life too. If I were still capable of regret? That I’ve
received hospitality more than I’ve given it. Maybe that. That too often I’ve
been treated gently, let off the hook. That sometimes, ambivalent about life,
I’ve lived as if by habit. Maybe that. I’m not holding a stone to my chest,
though. I do not need to hold a stone to my chest. I’ve come through, that’s
what I can say for myself. I’ve come through, with all the awkward hunches and
stays of execution that coming through entails. No, do not. Do not hustle
yourself into revelation, do not cheapen the last flashes over the weir, think
of beauty, yes, and of joy and luck and grace. These are your last rites. Again
the cliffs above Debre Libanos. Again the walk into the Blue Nile Gorge. Again
along the Mediterranean, the perfume of herbs in every crushing step. Duck
beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the medieval stone house where you lived
for a time. See the Scythian figurines in museum cases, the cobblestones of
Erice. Again the fever and dream of the written word. Again your parents and
the child your parents could lift. I was a fickle son. Again the finest flame
of touch and the play of mind for the last time: tether, tearing, snap:
churning under, flowing out.
His eyes still look. I draw them closed. Stone is heavy. Place two small