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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
    Paperback:
    Jul 2004, 288 pages

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Ismail began strolling along the bank, spade extended to the ground. They'd walked far enough out of town that sugarcane fields lined both sides of the river. "The who?"

"The archaeologists."

"Oh, them. But they're still not finding any gold." The local villagers, not to mention government authorities, kept close watch on what the Strangs were finding.

Picar Strang and Mary Williams were good friends, which baffled Isaac. Imagine a weird New Ager yakking about work and family with his mother during their Saturday coffee klatches. His mother was not nearly so generous with her private time with anyone else outside the family.

Ismail halted. "The jinn sensed something here," he said, and began to dig furiously.

Despite repeated failures, hope always rises triumphant on treasure hunts, so Isaac got down on his knees to dig with his hands. "There!" he cried, and snatched out an octagonal coin with raised Chinese letters around a square hole in the center. These kepengs were common, but the jinn had at last found them some money! They inspected the find, excitedly wondering whether they were standing upon real treasure. Ismail put the coin in his pocket. The boys dug for another hour, ending up with a wide, knee-deep hole, their spirits lagging when all the spade turned over was stinky muck. They soon recovered, flinging mud balls at each other, until Isaac realized that the sun was a reddish smudge close to the horizon.

"Aduh, look at the time. I got to get home before I get into trouble," he said.

Ismail glanced up at the setting sun. "Iyallah, if I miss magrib prayers, my father will be furious."

They began to run the mile back to town. Ismail outpaced a panting, overheated Isaac, who stopped for a moment to take off his muddy T-shirt. By the time Ismail reached the irrigation road by the first bridge, Isaac was still lumbering along the riverbed. Mosquitoes swarmed from the ponds and attacked him in clouds. He ran faster, flailing his T-shirt around his body. Ismail doubled over with laughter, slapping his knobby knees.

"You should have seen yourself," he said when Isaac climbed up out of the culvert. "You could be a circus clown."

"Funny," Isaac growled. Ismail slapped him on the back, a hard smack that stung. Isaac yelped. Ismail showed his palm, with a squished mosquito in the center of a crimson smear. "Wow," Ismail said in mock amazement, using the English exclamation before switching to Javanese, "your American blood is just as red as mine!"


Isaac entered the compound by the secret gate. His stomach growled. He wondered what his chances were of talking his parents into going out to eat at the Hai Shin restaurant. The restaurant occupied the ground floor of an old trading warehouse down in the small riverside intestines of Wonobo. Two generations of Chinese Buddhist women ran the restaurant -- three, if you included fifteen-year-old Meimei, who helped in the kitchen cooking her migrant grandmother's old Chinese recipes. Isaac drooled over images of frog's legs fried in garlic butter sauce and pork dumplings. The Hai Shin was the only place in Wonobo where the Americans could eat pork, since the mission forbade it anywhere on the hospital grounds out of respect for the Muslim patients.

Isaac scratched at the mosquito bites within reach. His mother had a radar sense for him, so he sneaked through the back garden of his house and into the outdoor laundry washroom for a quick rinse there. He'd just turned on the water tap to fill a bucket when the overhead fluorescent bulb hummed and flared into harsh light.

Behind him his mom said, "For heaven's sake, what did you get into?"

Isaac put on a smile and turned around. "Oh, hi, Mom. I was out playing with Ismail."

His mother's limp blond strands were pulled back and held in place by a fake tortoiseshell barrette, and the smudges under her soft blue eyes had deepened with another day's hard work. She sniffed. "That smells like river mud. Were you playing in the river?"

Copyright © 2004 by Richard Lewis

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