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Excerpt from The Flame Tree by Richard Lewis, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Flame Tree

by Richard Lewis

The Flame Tree by Richard Lewis X
The Flame Tree by Richard Lewis
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2004, 288 pages
    Jul 2004, 288 pages


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On one crumbling warehouse wall, posters had been pasted. The blaring red letters advertised a free dangdut show in the town square the following Sunday, with a silhouetted picture of a slinky female singer at the microphone.

"Hey, this ought to be fun," Ismail said. "You want to go?"

The show was scheduled for the first Sunday of Spiritual Emphasis Week. Reverend Biggs would be arriving from mission headquarters that day to lead the week-long event, and Isaac knew from past years that he would be preaching both morning and evening sermons. But there would be no church service in the afternoon, and Isaac now had a secret gate to sneak out of the compound. "You bet," he said. "Just remind me the day before."

"So how is America?" Ismail asked. "Any dangdut there?"

"America is funny," Isaac said. "You can drink the water. You don't have to take off your shoes when you walk into a house. But you want to know what's really funny?"


"There's no people there. Not in the country, anyway. You can drive and drive and drive and hardly see anyone out walking or working. It's spooky."

They passed the dirty, legless beggar sitting on his four-wheeled trolley in the bus stop's dilapidated security post, a cup for coins placed beside the sidewalk. Isaac had no coins to give. He sucked up the last drops of the drink and tossed the empty cup into the gutter. Isaac Williams the American boy would have been horrified at the littering, but at the moment he was Isaac Williams the Javanese bulé out with his best friend. In Java you scoured your houses and yards clean as heaven, and the jinns and the government took care of the rest.

A public transport bemo, a tinny box on tiny wheels, avoided a minor traffic jam by driving up onto the sidewalk, nearly running the boys over.

"Another thing about America is that drivers will actually stop and let you cross the street," Isaac said as they started walking again.

Ismail's off-centered brows tilted even more in surprise. "Why would they do that?"

"Maybe because pedestrians are so rare, the drivers stop to stare at them."

Ismail laughed. "Like white bulés in Java. See, that driver is staring at you. Hey, by the way, I had my circumcision ceremony when you were in America."

"I'm sorry I missed that," Isaac said. "I would have loved hearing you crying and wailing."

Ismail looked offended. "I didn't make a sound." His expression turned sly. "So when are you going to have the blanket taken off your worm?"

Isaac said loftily, "Worms with blankets grow to be bigger snakes."

"Infidel," Ismail said, flashing his grin and punching Isaac's arm.

They came to a weary, wrought-iron fence. Beyond, ancient frangipani trees sheltered the graves of the old Muslim cemetery. The boys squeezed through a rusted gap in the fence and began to run again through this silent, shadow-shrouded world. Isaac, who had a college vocabulary in his head, flipped through it. Crepuscular, caliginous, tenebrous: Fancy words to keep less fancy fears away, but not altogether successfully. The frangipani trees twisted up from the ground like skeletons rising from the graves. Isaac ran faster yet. At the far end of the cemetery he swung over the fence on a stout frangipani branch and dropped down onto the weedy verge of a narrow residential lane beside Ismail. They bent over with hands on knees, panting and laughing. Isaac wiped fat drops of sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt.

They hurried on, jumping over the lane's potholes. All the houses along this lane were square-planked and raised on stilts, with narrow front verandas and clay-tiled roofs. Ibu Hajjah Wida sat as usual in her veranda's rocking chair, a gilt-edged Qur'an open on her robed lap. A green herbal mask covered her face. Her head was swathed with the incorruptibly white scarf she'd brought back from Mecca three years previously. She read aloud, deaf to the quarreling of her three grandchildren around her feet, but she must have heard the boys, for she stopped reading and glanced up at them. She granted Isaac a benedictory smile. "Al-salamu alaikum, Isak," she called out. "Welcome home."

Copyright © 2004 by Richard Lewis

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