Chee Chuk (Memories from Sumatra, Indonesia)


Chevron landed our oil camp in the center of a village previously unspoiled by Western advances except for Disney Princess shirts and dirty motorcycles. There they placed us, protected from brown-skinned neighbors by fences and barbed wire and border guards armed with clubs and slingshots until the Bali Bombing when they upgraded to rifles.

It was always raining except the days they burned trash. Then the misted air filled with the green acids of plastic. Sometimes when it rained I would let out the cats. There was a gray sidewalk that wound around the house, kept dry by an extension of the roof and gutter. The cats, mewing softly in dialogue, would scour the perimeter for shelter-seeking beetles. We didn't have to watch them; the rain made an excellent cage.

At night, the windows went chak chak chak. Mom thought the villagers were tapping sticks against the glass. I will return to this.

My room takes some explaining. Our house was a one-story American imitation, but it had a porch that made an L across two sides, and this porch was enclosed, sealed by walls and long windows with metal bars that made a lattice instead of stripes. My room had been created by partitioning some of the porch, so it had incredible length but a squat waist, and I had a strip of glass that peered outside but also a strip of glass that looked into the living room, and I had two doors, one that led into the house and the other onto the cement path and green furry grass.

I made the discovery in the middle of the night. Lying in bed, two cats forming a ying-yang on the covers, woken by the purple-white call of lightning, I heard beyond the tah tah tah of rain the relentless sound of chak chak chak.

Now, there's a recklessness you get when you are young and have a theory and animal companions (even if they are selfish little cats). I crept to the window and peered into the wine-dark. Finding no one, I unlocked the external door and pushed until the wood-rust cracked and it swung open. My memories of this moment are faint: wetslick air, the cascading wall of water, the creep of feet and paws, meows emitted by cats (or meong meong in Bahasa), no one in sight but me, and still the sound of sticks.

I paused, the cats padding softly around me, and looked to the window. There, a brown lizard with splayed legs emitted the sound: chak chak chak. The lizard noticed us and leaped, was caught by the cats, squirmed out of its tail to distract them, and, dignity lost, escaped into the grass. Relieved, I closed the door, and as I fell into slumber, I return from the backwaters of memory to my home in Texas – a place far-flung from the fantasy of the jungle, but no stranger to mystery and the hug of humidity.