The guide knifes an imaginary slit
from breastbone down to the navel,
then branches into two at her legs, hung off
the execution stone. This is how they did it, he says,
to criminals in ancient times. We are all Christians
now. They give us tours, beer, and barbeque.
A Batak house is shaped like an ark:
high on stilts to keep out water, and to hold
pigs and buffalo below. At night,
their lowing shakes the kitchen floor.
Leave us alone, they are saying. Bodies—
of animals, or water—never ask to be held.
Men sleep alone, against the front gable. The roof
rises at both ends: stern and bow, or pair of horns.
Rising over the hill, we count pairs of horns
against a green so profuse, it might damage
the eye. When I close mine, color
still flashes, neons like betta fish
darting through the flooded paddies.
Who am I to see this place? Saturation is a blue
crater, a lake reflecting the heavy sky,
and the cotton sarongs we hung up days ago
that still haven’t dried on the line.
When I climb and slip, a bruise spreads
on my hip like a caldera: cold basalt
at the center, silica at the shallow edge.
When I move, it shimmers into living: a moth
scratching the lamp, too hot where we try to touch.
Hot is the itch we know
when spinning a yarn
about the earth’s ejecta, but after
the volcano, weren’t there years
without summer? This continent
swathed in six inches of gray?
Pyroclasts veiled the planet, kept it away
from the rain and sun. Wilt flattened
the forest, concaved the human belly.
And always that sound of small gods
that could be carried on wind.
The population P whittled
to a waif-like : the ship slid
in the bottleneck, and through.
Because the bottleneck theory
tells us that a ship can flatten
a nation, one ship always leads
to another, and then its company
digging up the land. When ripe
coffee beans bulge—red as lungs’
alveoli—some drop and spoil before
they’re plucked, the fields a small massacre.
The remaining cherries must be
scoured and rinsed and what now
do we do with gallons of wastewater.
Pour it back in the lake? Dumb down
its original clarity? Dead fish float
to the top, rafts with their silver sides up.
They promised rice, a sunny-side up,
and kopi in glass tumblers. But they never said the inn
was clapboards and shambles. The island’s pinnacle
is a wrecked crow’s nest, far from the harbor’s pizza,
English marquees: WE TOP WITH MAGIC MUSHROOMS.
Crows sway in these tropical pines. The women chew
their betel, smiles as orange as iodine.
The young one ushers us to where we sleep:
a barn with a bed touching all four walls.
But I climb out at night, urgent
and shivering, leap over the snouts
of three sleeping dogs. To pee in the dark
I hover, lift my hem over the soil,
as I’ve seen the other women do in daylight.
What Marco Polo saw, he never recorded in daylight,
preferring chicken-scratch in the dark, his feather pen’s
white the only light to see by. These hill folk are man-eaters.
They suck out human bones. Kin must provide pepper, lemons, and salt.
He saw this, somehow, all the way from the coast, having never
left the beach’s hem, pressed into the Batak interior.
These women, he wrote, in truth, are very handsome, very sensual.
I remember Elizabeth Taylor on a Spanish beach,
nipples boring through her white bathing suit. The boys
flock and circle her because she doesn’t belong.
And way back in time, under rings of candlelight,
Columbus is footnoting Polo’s Travels,
the pages oily with his touch. The ink splashes
beneath his hand: a mix of acid, salts, and gall.
We sleep beneath batik and mosquito net, salty skin
scratching the mattress. Beside me, the guidebook
pages, thin as a bible’s, curl up from the dampness.
I dream I’m on a ship as it slides—no,
thrusts—through the neck of a bottle.
The scratchy sails cover us like burial linens.
I have seen fluyt models in museums, but never
the hook: the used to wrench it up like a tent.
Somewhere under my sleep, the deck is buckling.
I lie next to a woman that I have never met,
our mouths muted by strips of sailcloth.
A scar already divides her bare belly into two.
Here, some missionary—a sailor, a white boy—
guides his knife again, imagines her as a slit.
Header photo of Batak house by Julia Chapple, courtesy Flickr. Photo of Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers by J. Robert Lennon.