SAVAGE BEAUTY - THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MENTAWAI PLAYGROUND



The betrayal was complete. A roaring wall of Ocean water bursting through the jungle in the darkness of night. A sea where there should be no sea. Her child ripped from her arms, her husband found mangled and reeking in the debris two days later. She still could not bear the thought of what had happened to her sleeping infant. Below her left ankle, her foot had been half-severed from her bones after a tumbling nightmare through the grove of palm trees, tin rooftops ripping against the night like scythes. Here, on her home island of Silabu, she walks and remembers all this. She will always remember. A lot of her died that night. Her eyes had swum before her as the doctor’s big, hooked needle entered her skin around her raw wound.

Her foot was now a swollen, bleeding pumpkin. She had passed out at the sight. She was afraid to sleep. The nightmare might return. That hoarse, steady roar of the Ocean, the screams, the entire village running past her home, that last wild look at the impossible sight behind her as she dove with her child into the safety of the small church. Then the explosion of wood and water and pews and prayer missals and hymn books and tin roofing. An ungodly force ripping her little girl from her arms forever. The tumbling eternity underwater. Lungfuls of it. The vomiting. And then the jungle silence.

She remembered, in that moment, everything had changed inside her. She had reached up to her throat and ripped the cross pendant from around her neck. Now, she walks and remembers much. That next morning, a group of women who had lost their children and their men had come to her for help. They were to all to form a sort of orphanage. She was asked to be the headmaster. She was already holding another woman’s infant to her left breast. As her milk flowed into the tiny creature, the sparks of a new connection to her island were formed. But this time far different than before. This time not with the enraptured sky of her abandoned religion, but with the mud between her toes. Because she could feel this suckling baby’s heartbeat through her nipple. A faint, pulling whisper. She had her secret. A new belief. The village women had told her not to worry. That Jesus Christ, in all his wisdom, had planned this all for them. It was a test of faith.



Their doorway to heaven. The women had spoken of the Lord and his mysterious ways. That Jesus Christ was hope. He would provide. She had fought back a frown and nodded. Because she had a plan of her own now. She would whisper the truth. In the orphanage, she would whisper the real truth into the ears of the young. She would whisper to them to never trust the phantoms of the sky ever again. That no thick-bearded God, no old white man, was sitting on a throne in the clouds and waiting for them with milk and honey. She would whisper to them that their world would always be here. In the mud. A world of bone and gristle, of blood and sand and more blood and jungle steam and the malevolent sea. And that nature would truly scream again. And that it would have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Be ready, she would whisper into their small ears. This is your home, no one else’s. You must know how the Ocean can betray you. And she would whisper these truths. She would tell them that in their world, they would find no peace from hardship. That theirs was a world of savage beauty. She would tell them. She walks, sweating in the jungle heat, and remembers all this from the years before.

She had kept her secret. Kept her promise. She had whispered to the children and they had understood. Magical tales of magical beings and magical lands that await the obedient were just that, magical tales and no more. Their lives were here and not up in the sky. Now there were more white men around. Anchored in big boats in the greater bay not far from her jungle home. They were here to play in the Ocean and they needed more food. She carried a large basket of fish and fruit and eggplants and palm sago balanced atop her head. As she walked, a band of village orphans scrambled about her feet on the narrow trail. The moist jungle opened to the beach, its coral sands white as flour and dry as bones. And the greater bay spread out before them. A number of big boats were at restless anchor near the reef’s crashing waves, and she could see the dots that were the white people playing in the Ocean.



They would catch the waves on their small surfboards and stand up on the waves and shoot across the faces of them over the reef and into the deep channel. It looked like a kind of merrymaking. And that made her wonder if they new, really knew, just how vile their playground could become. The children who had followed her fanned out into the sun and sand, marveling at the shells and the hermit crabs and the bone dryness. The open dome of the sky, unobstructed by the jungle canopy. Full of all the possibilities of reality. She could see a sea eagle soaring above the greater bay. And she thought about how lucky that creature was. To be able to fly from harm in an instant. If only she could have flown away that night, her baby in her arms. A smaller boat from one of the bigger boats had seen her and was coming her way.



So, she put her burden down to wait. The kids were excited, knowing the white men would bring sweets and sugar drinks for them, as they always did. She remains standing. She never sits near the Ocean. Not anymore. Not ever. She feels the soles of her feet rooted to the ground, able to run, feeling her regrets from that night long ago. If only she would have had warning. So she stands and sweats in the heat and watches the beach and the sea and the white men on the sea. Then, as she always does, she squints her eyes toward the undulating blue horizon. Wondering when. Never trusting. Never again. And a shiver runs up her spine.

Text by Matt George • Photography by Lost Indo

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