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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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He dipped his chin. "Alaikum as-salam, Ibu Hajjah. It is good to be back."

She waved him toward her. Isaac glanced at Ismail, who made an impatient face. But Isaac was a polite Javanese bulé who respected his elders, so he opened the gate and stood at the foot of the veranda steps, keeping his gaze downcast, as was proper.

"How are your parents, young Isak?"

"They are fine, thank you."

"Good." She rocked some more, rubbing her gnarled, arthritic fingers across the gilt-embossed cover of the Qur'an. "They are people of the Book, doctors who help the poor. Tell your kind mother and your father they are safe. Tell them not to worry. Most people know they are good people."

Isaac looked up at her in surprise. Behind the green herbal mask her black eyes twinkled kindly. He cleared his throat and said, "Thank you, Ibu Hajjah, I will."

"It's black magicians like Adi the tofu maker who should worry," she said, and returned to her Qur'an.

Isaac rejoined Ismail. What had that been about? What had she meant, that his parents were not to worry, that they were safe? When somebody said something like that, the first thing you did was to start worrying when there had been no worry in the first place.

Ismail's house looked like it had too much of the local arak to drink. The whole of it leaned slightly to the right. Ismail, who was playing hooky, peered through the neighbor's hibiscus hedge to make sure his mother was not around and then darted into the yard to get the metal detector, which was behind the chicken coop. The detector was a battered metal spade with a cracked wooden handle. Ismail claimed that Adi the tofu maker had charmed the spade, putting a metal-detecting jinn into the iron scoop. Adi lived in this neighborhood and made charms and sold amulets to ward off evil influences. Isaac didn't see what was so black about his magic.

Several men, one in robes and turban, squatted on the veranda of Ismail's house, staring at Isaac without expression. He did not recognize them. Through the open door, Isaac saw, on a stand beside the small television, a framed picture of Tuan Guru Haji Abdullah Abubakar. He pointed the picture out to Ismail. "Who is that old guy?"

"The Tuan Guru? A strict Muslim. If he had his way, we wouldn't be able to watch any more wayang kulit shows, don't even mention Hollywood movies."

"Is your father a follower?"

Ismail frowned, his brows twisted with discomfort and embarrassment, an unusual expression on his normally vivacious face. "It gets easy to like a Tuan Guru who preaches against corruption when corrupt bosses steal your land. At least my father still has his job at the sugar mill, or we'd be really hurting." His face cleared and he smiled. "But maybe we'll find some treasure down by the river. Come on."

Several hours later all that the metal-detecting jinn in the magic spade had uncovered in the baked clay and moist muck of the nearly dry Brantas River was a rusted hubcap and an engine block. Isaac's T-shirt was drenched with sweat. A swim would have been nice, but because of the prolonged drought, the river was nothing more than scummy-looking ponds and a sluggish brown stream. A worm of guilt wriggled across his conscience -- not only had his parents laid down a new rule that he had to ask permission before leaving the compound, they had specifically told him not to play down by the river because of mosquitoes and malaria. But Isaac wasn't really disobeying. The State Department warnings that had alarmed his parents were for stupid Americans who didn't know what they were doing, blundering around the country and ignorantly offending people. As for the river rule, that really applied only at sunset, when the mosquitoes swarmed.

"You'd think with the water this low, we'd find lots of things," Isaac said. "Like the Strangs are finding."

Copyright © 2004 by Richard Lewis

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