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
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2004, 288 pages
    Jul 2004, 288 pages

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Underneath Isaac's dangling right foot the sidewalk arced around an ornamental stand of head-high, yellow bamboo that clumped up against the compound wall. The ripe scent of aged urine floated up from the bamboo. A man in black trousers and white shirt broke his stride to step into the stand, where he unzipped his trousers and peed against the wall. His groan of relief rose as clear as a gamelan gong.

There was something different about the bamboo that caught Isaac's attention. The shoots closest to the wall had been cut down. From his elevated angle, something was off-kilter about the wall, too. Curious, he scrambled down the tree and slipped into the stifling shade of the tangerine tree that hid this section of wall from ground-level view. He brushed off a sweat drop trickling down his forehead, frowning at the thick sandstone bricks like he would at an algebra problem. Then he saw the gate. Somebody had cunningly detached a four-foot-square section of wall and then rebricked it within a thin frame of steel strips painted the same color as the stone. The frame was in turn attached on its right side by inset hinges to a stouter I beam inserted behind a facade of sandstone brick. A small gate, but nonetheless one that would allow even a large man to leave the compound.

Or enter.

I wonder if Tanto...But even as the question formed in Isaac's mind, there came from the large lawn on the far side of the residences the blatting of the gardener's mower. Tanto was a hard worker. When would he have had the time to make this gate? Not only that, he was security-conscious. The previous year he had caught a thief climbing over the wall with a bundle of clothes taken off the Higgenbothams' drying line, and he'd nearly bludgeoned the man to death.

It took Isaac a minute to figure out the latching mechanism, cleverly hidden inside a loose brick. With just a touch, the gate opened silently outward. The inch-wide gap beckoned as alluringly as a hole into another universe.

I should tell Dad.

Isaac pushed harder. The bamboo on the other side had been cut to allow the gate to swing open. He bent and stepped through the hole in the wall, scrunching his nose against the acrid stench of urine. Wouldn't anyone who used this patch of bamboo as a pissoir notice the gate? He closed it. On this side the gate was even harder to see.

Now it is really time to tell Dad.

Through a gap in the bamboo, he spotted Ismail darting across the street. Ismail halted underneath the flame tree and glanced up at Isaac's empty perch, his narrow brown face looking as lively as a crackling electric wire. Isaac grinned and slipped out of the bamboo stand. He came close to his friend and tapped Ismail on the shoulder.

Ismail whirled around, his mended shirt flapping loosely on his skinny bones. He was a foot shorter and half as heavy as Isaac, but his scrawny muscles were just as strong. "Iyallah, where did you come from?"

"I have mastered the art of teleportation," Isaac said.

"That so? Then teleport us down to the river."

Isaac waved his hand and intoned, "Bim-sallah-bim."

Ismail looked with exaggerated wonder around him. "Aiyah, it almost worked."

Isaac returned Ismail's snaggletoothed grin with his orthodontically shining one. He wondered if he should tell his friend about the gate, but he decided to keep it his delicious secret for a while longer.

"You're fatter," Ismail said. "And your eyes are more blue."

"They're just the same as they were," Isaac said. "Let's go, we got treasure to find."

They dashed down Hospital Street, weaving around pedestrians. They ran past Pak Harianto's barbershop. The petite man lifted his hand clipper from a black-haired head to wave at Isaac. "Welcome back!" he called out. Isaac was a valued customer -- the only blond among Harianto's clients. Above the barber's wall mirror was a plaque bearing an Arabic inscription, a phrase from the Qur'an: BISMILLAH AR-RAHMAN AR-RAHIM. This stand-alone phrase was so common, Isaac could recognize what the Arabic script meant on sight: "In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful."

Copyright © 2004 by Richard Lewis

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