The serpentine coils of the narrow road vaulted by torturous degrees to the plateau that held the small village midair in the mist, near the base of the mountain range. He’d often spoken of the terrain as “the Island of West Virginia,” yet nothing in the States could claim such exotic beauty; no mountain could be lovely as this, no soil so rich as this volcanic loam, no woman taste as sweet.
It was cooler here. Often in the city the heat rose, dove-like, from every atom of air and each crack in the abused pavement, its stifling grip clutching the throat of the unwary traveler. Those acclimated to the elements would glance curiously at the pale American about to board the train for the long trek to a far different world.
The coffee swirled in each clear glass, a strong Sumatran blend grown on land very close to that of the old couple that shared their home in the small community nestled near the lesser mountains of Kendal Province.
“You haven’t changed…much,” the young man said as he was offered the hot liquid and a bowl of cane sugar to sweeten it.
“Nor you,” his host said, smiling, as thin tendrils of vapor slowly danced above the cup.
Dancing was a form of sacrifice, she’d told him, both pleasure and obligation swaying as one.
“How was your trip?” The older man enquired.
“Long. Tiring. Twenty-five hours in the air with little rest. The usual.”
“You’ll be wanting a shower then,” his host commented. “We’ll warm the water on the stove.”
“Thank you. I believe I’ll feel a bit more human after that.”
“Your wife said you weren’t feeling well?”
The young man shook his head.
“Your daughter can’t keep a secret,” he said.
“I know, so am I. Nothing seems beautiful anymore. It all melts into sameness.” He smiled humorlessly. “Like sugar in coffee.”
“But the sugar is sweet and the coffee is warm.”
“I can’t seem to feel either of those.” The young man shrugged. “I don’t belong anywhere.”
“You belong with your wife,” the old man replied.
“I belong to her,” the young man corrected. “My vows…”
“Mean nothing if your soul no longer honors them.”
“No doubt,” the young man sighed.
“Why did you marry my daughter?” The elder challenged.
“I loved her. Love her, I mean.”
The coffee had long ceased dancing, the cups cooled and empty. The muddy grounds had settled like silt.
“You were nineteen when you married?” The young man asked. “And your wife was fifteen?”
“Yes. We were young,” the elder smiled ruefully. “And poor.”
“How did you know it was the right decision?”
“We didn’t know. We believed.”
“An act of faith?”
“Something like that.”
The young man’s eyes gradually closed, and a slow century later, he replied with his own rueful smile.
“She wishes you would stay,” his host said abruptly.
“She wishes you would stay,” he repeated.
“My wife,” the elder smiled.
The young man was stunned.
“Really? I thought she disliked me.”
“She doesn’t understand you. Perhaps no more than you understand yourself. But you have become our son. You’ve married our daughter.”
“After five years she thinks of me as family? I’m…”
“Speechless?” The elder grinned.
“Yes. Papa, you’ve always respected me and I’ve appreciated that more than you know. But, Mama… I… Thank you both.”
The elder nodded.
Your wife is calling. Are you feeling well?”
“Well enough. Terimah kasih.”
“So?” His wife said, arms crossed.
“What was it about?”
“You, me, us, them, everything.”
He shrugged. The habit of answering questions with questions had become an unavoidable means of delaying the inevitable; like a firing squad composed of octogenarians, death came slowly, understanding even more slowly.
“They know so much and so little,” he said quietly.
“Your father,” he replied. “I’ve never respected anyone as much as I respect him. When we disagree we do so gently, it’s his nature. But your mom…”
‘Has she upset you?”
“No, she shocked me. Before I left to meet you she hugged me and called me ‘son.’”
“Your mother kissed my cheek and claimed me as a son.”
“That’s wonderful!” His wife said with a smile reminiscent of her father’s broad grin.
“That’s a maelstrom of emotion,” he mused. “Amazing…”
His thoughts coiled, flexed and relaxed as easily as a cat that had found a sill to sun itself. Now, three hours distant from his in-laws small house, his thoughts pursued him.
She sat next to him on the edge of the bed, the two of them silent as the bustling staff of the hotel prepared rooms, washed linens, greeted guests and served Asian cuisine in the dining room. Perpetually busy, always smiling.
He held her hand absently.
“I love you,” he said.
“You do?” His wife asked in a mocking tone.
“Of course,” he said.
“You’re not saying that because you should? Because we’re married?”
“Hm,” she considered the declaration carefully, as if weighing its value against that of a precious stone.
“I’ve always thought you were beautiful,” he said.
“If you say that again you’ll embarrass me,” she smiled.
“She turned toward him slowly and took his hand.
“If you tell me I’m beautiful you’ll embarrass me,” she repeated firmly.
“Why should that embarrass you?” He asked.
“Because if I’m lovely, your touch should tell me so. Not your words.”
“I see. We’re books then and love and beauty are forms of Braille?”
“Of course. And unread books yield no secrets.”
“Oh,” he exhaled as the mystery of their marriage crept slowly back into his bones. His thoughts began to chase the memories huddled in the corners of his soul. Like mice, they scurried from the light.
“Is this a new language we’re about to learn? He asked breathlessly.
“Hush,” the soft voice warned as the mirror of the inner kingdom convulsed and he was swallowed whole.
The old man sat, sipping tea, as the workers wrestled the precious cargo from the truck and deposited it in the house. He smiled, pleased with himself, as he surveyed what would soon be the island of another culture nestled in their home. For as long as his daughter and son-in-law cared to claim it, and as often as they cared to visit, this marriage chamber would remain to welcome them in its way own way, and theirs.
“Smooth enough,” he affirmed, nodding at the rough stones that adorned the walk like slices of glass on gravel.
“Clean enough,” he thought as the red clay at the gate, packed tight as asphalt, was swept of twigs and leaves and the tiled floor gleamed seraphic white.
“Good enough,” he concluded, as the new bed and its magnificent headboard teetered on the ancient truck in the narrow drive, waiting to be placed in the hallowed room.
“May you be blessed with believing above knowing,” the elder silently prayed, wiping tears from his eyes. “Blessed be.”