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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On the corner opposite the hospital gates was the Toko Sahabat, or the Friendship Shop. A crowd of shoppers, mostly families of patients, milled around its entrance. The boys slowed to a twisting crawl to pass through the congestion. The owner, Mr. Ah Kiat, hovered behind the two checkout girls on the registers, snuffling his nose into a handkerchief while his sharp eyes kept watch on everything. He always had that handkerchief in hand. The other students called him "Ah Choo." Ah Kiat glanced out the doors at the discount clothes rack on the sidewalk and lowered his handkerchief to yell, "Udin, where are you? I've told you a dozen times to straighten out the sales rack."

From behind the rack, a voice muttered, "By Allah, what does the bastard think I'm doing?" A young man wearing a dirty Iron Mike Tyson T-shirt and an Iron Mike frown stepped out, pushing Isaac to the side.

Isaac protested. "Hey! Awas lo!"

The older boy pointed the handful of coarse hairs on his chin at Isaac as though they were porcupine quills, his face one big bad mood. Isaac, knowing that teenage nastiness transcended cultures, lowered his head and scooted along. Oomph -- he ran right into a barrel belly encased in a blue security officer's uniform. He looked up with a sinking heart at the broad black face and pale yellow eyes of Mr. Theophilus, the hospital's Irianese chief of security.

"You be going where, Isak?" Mr. Theophilus asked in his peculiar outer-island patois.

"Just down to Ismail's house," Isaac said.

"Your mother, does she know this?"

"Of course she does."

Behind the security chief, Ismail bounced from one foot to the other.

"And you are a Christian boy who tells no lies, is that so?"

"I always go out, she knows that. I wouldn't be out if she didn't know it."

Mr. Theophilus's eyes narrowed, but he stepped to the side. "This I will be asking her."

The boys ran around the corner onto Hayam Wuruk Avenue, wide enough for six intercity buses to race side by side on four marked lanes or for any rambunctious mob to spread its elbows. They ran and ran, and the world that was behind Isaac grew smaller and smaller, dwindling down to a memory no more consequential than a wad of Juicy Fruit gum stuck to the bottom of a tennis shoe. They ran past the flower shop with floral arrangements laid out in front like the life of man, from baby bouquets to funeral wreaths. They dodged the cutout cardboard Fuji girl who stood all green and smiles in front of the camera and photocopy shop. They sped up to pass the red-tiled house used as a children's Islamic study hall, where Ismail was supposed to be in present attendance, chanting Qur'an verses with the others. They slowed down to a hopeful trolling pace in front of Pak Heru's fruit shop.

Sure enough, Pak Heru called out, "Isak, wait." Isaac's dad had saved Pak Heru's skin, in the literal sense of the term, for Graham Williams was a dermatologist as well as the hospital's medical director. Pak Heru handed Isaac a tall tangerine slurp. He beamed at Isaac and waved away Isaac's thanks.

Isaac and Ismail walked on, passing the cup back and forth to suck on the tangy ice shavings. They strolled by the establishment owned by Muhammad Ali Benny, a formerly indifferent Buddhist and avid boxing fan who had recited in front of two witnesses the shahadah -- the Muslim confession of faith that there is only one God and Muhammad is His prophet, and had so become a strict Muslim. He continued to serve all faiths as a poor man's dentist. He replaced the teeth he pulled with off-the-rack dentures made in Taiwan, enormous models of which were painted on a whitewashed window, huge pink things with painful-looking, beaver-size teeth. The bismillah sign in his dentist's office was one of the most appropriately placed bismillahs in all of Wonobo. How many patients had those monster chompers levered into place as they tearfully stared at the plaque proclaiming God's compassion and mercy?

Copyright © 2004 by Richard Lewis

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