Featured on Salt Water
It was on a remote island one-hundred and fifty kilometers off the West Coast of North Sumatra. We stood on a street in the West village lined with hovels of rotting timber and thatch gables and angled bamboo posts dug shallow in the wetland soil. An incandescent light floodlit the glinting raindrops on the palm and fig and woody climber trees and the trees stood proud aloft providing the only respite from the sun and rain. At the south end of the lay a house smaller than the rest and home to an angular boned Indonesian boy. The home looked out onto a bay of coral and cyan waters and to another group of shanties built on the North side of the bay where we stayed. The home was one bare room for a family of five and contained a solitary iron cooking pot on a steel tripod over a fireplace in the corner. The boy sat on the porch cross legged filling up gerry cans of petrol. I turned to the guy beside me. “Check out that kid.”
“Doesn’t look fun,” he said.
“Pourin that petrol.”
“What’d you reckon he’s smilin’ at?”
A local lady with whom we stayed called the boy over. He scurried to us and stood waiting, his jerry can still in hand. He was the tallest and stood shirtless and straight with his arms linked behind to hold up his shorts from the back. His shorts resembled a forgotten rag in the shed and loosely hung from his hips and drooped well past his knees. As he stood before us he unlinked his arms to swat an insect on his torso and he had to catch his shorts from falling. In the time I studied the boy, the local lady had herded a crowd of local grommets from the neighbouring houses.
“Want to go surfing?” I asked to the boy in broken Bahasa.
“Ya”, He nodded and turned to his friends. “Selancar?” The other children nodded.
I’ve never seen a crowd grasp the mechanics of standing on a board so quickly and effortlessly. But their enthusiasm equalled their impatience. They hollered and jumped on the board—like it was the only one on the Island, which, discluding ours, it was, admittedly—save the boy. Even when we offered the board he refused and continued wading in the shallows. The morning went on and the sun all elliptical and blinding rose above us and we could feel it on our backs like a match close to the skin all over and our mouths became salt dry. We pointed to the beach and to our accommodation and the children understood and swam in. I picked up the board and carried it aloft and I felt someone tug on my arm.
“Satu lagi?” The boy said.
I handed him the board.
“Terima kasih,” he said and he walked back out into the surf alone. From the North side of the bay he was a speck amongst flat and cyan waters and palm filled escarpments curling around the bay and the vast sky above. The boy sat on the board waiting and bobbing over incoming swells. When a wave did come he would paddle hard and miss it and paddle back out. He waited and endeavored and failed until the sun dipped below the ocean and the water turned a glossed crimson and the wind abated and the evening chilled. He ambled back up the beach toward the North, stooped under the board balancing on his head with his long black hair drooped over his face and his threadbare shorts falling below his waist.
“He just comin’ in now?” One of the others said.
“Some shorts, huh?”
“Emma brought some new shorts to give to one of the groms.”
“Yeah, from Brownies.”
“That trendy surf shop?”
“He definitely needs a pair.”
He walked right up to us and gave us the board.
“Terima kasih,” he said with a stutter from his cold shakes. He nodded and left walking down the street soaked and shaking into the darkness.
The next day he came back alone and picked up the board and walked back down to the South end of the bay and paddled out. He still had not stood up on the board. I waded out and offered to help.
“Tiduk,” he said. “Bagus.” He put a thumb up and smiled.
“Masuk. Makan,” I said and pointed to the shore and then to my stomach.
“Tiduk,” he said and he put his thumbs up and pulled up his shorts.
I swam in and walked up to the accommodation and ate lunch and fell to sleep. When I woke he was gone. The borrowed board was beside me and I wondered whether he stood up. The others told me he hadn’t.
It went on like this for six days and on the seventh I stopped trying to help. I watched from the shore and thought if he would ever stand up but then again it did not matter. I watched the swell ripple from the sea into the bay and watched the boy’s smile ripple from the bay out to sea and with each wave and each smile it was hard to think of much else he needed to be happy. I thought whether more would encumber his happiness for it was he that seemed happier than me and I could stand up on a board with brand new shorts that fitted me perfectly.
He looked out onto the horizon and then floated on his back looking at the sky. A pulse of swell arose further out and as it surged closer to shore he grabbed the rails of the board and pulled it under him and kicked and paddled. The swell picked him up and he continued to paddle as he climbed up its face and just before the crest of the wave broke he stood up with a wide stance with either arms held out and his tongue stretched out and curled around his lower lip. As the board rode down the face the boards inner left rail caught and he swung his arms backward to correct his balance and the board readjusted to a flat plain and he rode the wave right onto the sand.
He did not come after that. Someone told us it was because he was helping his father work but no one was sure. We thought we would never seem him again and on the last day when we were packing we were almost sure.
I put the luggage in the Ute and tied it down with occy straps and felt a tug on my arm. He put his hand on his heart and bowed.
“Terima kasih,” he said.
“It’s old mate,” I said to the others.
And then the refusal happened. Emma unzipped her bag and put her arm deep and pulled out a pair of brand new fashionable board shorts and held them out to the boy.
“Here,” she said. “I have some new shorts for you.”
But the boy did not accept them. He shook his head. “Tiduk, tiduk. Already, already.” And as he said ‘already’ he pointed to his shorts. Emma continued to hold them out and seemed insistent and once he sensed her insistence he gently took the shorts from her hands and handed them to his friend, the smallest boy in the village who had surfed those two weeks with no shorts at all.