There is Dust on my Mind
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1.

The karang was what they called it, the old word for coral. It had sprung up seemingly overnight, nestled in the corners and eaves of the city like wasps’ nests. On the outside, they appeared like their namesake, growing in rough fans or tubes, the colour of the city’s walls; or as porous spheres almost as large as a car tyre, perhaps implausibly tucked under the edge of a jutting tin roof. Despite their organic shapes, the scientists found in them no sign of life – just dirt and dust and the city’s grime, accumulated one upon another in little chunks too dissimilar to be crystalline.

Even the best universities in the West couldn’t explain why they formed so quickly, and why they only adhered to wood and stone, but not stainless steel. Perhaps due to this perplexity, and perhaps due to scientific nomenclature’s inability to fully capture their shape (Latin’s shaped like columns, but the coral grows in chunks), they never really decided on a proper name for the stuff, and the local vernacular stuck. Karang they called it, so karang it was.

At the end of the day, it might have been most fitting: coral’s nothing but the shells of dead things. After all, the sea has long been where the people went to die.

2.

The final state of this city’s inhabitants is not earth, but fire. Burial is commonplace, but only as an interim. Once the proper date is decided, all who have died in the passing months are exhumed and paraded through the streets, sometimes as little more than skeletons wrapped in their relatives’ best finery. There is music performed – raucous, loud, with many drums. The corpses are then set into a wooden tower decorated with divine beasts and figures, which is eventually set alight. Only after twelve days when the ashes have cooled do the bereaved carry the remains and return them to the sea.

Here, death is no demure affair. Funerals must be like good motorcycles: fast and loud. An air of gaiety pervades all aspects of the ceremony as though it was New Year’s Day (ironically, the city marks New Year’s Eve with deathly silence) and between the days of burial and fire, there is feasting and drinking and going to work and doing the chores and life, going on.

Maybe it is no wonder that the karang chose this city. Like death, it’s just another inexplicability to rub shoulders with, another paradox swept away in the morning under the hose, joining the rest of the city’s flotsam of spent offerings, dried leaves, plastic bottles, and little white flowers. There’s no need to tread around it in muted tones, as if one feared waking the dead.

After all, it’s just another part of the city: swelling, growing, collecting, as cities do.

3.

We ride on the edge of the road. Razid weaves between drains and parked cars, all the while expertly dodging chunks of stray karang.

“It’s not that hard to clear,” he explains. A truck growls behind us: he swerves, making a hard left over a bulbous mushroom-shaped chunk, which crumples like dried plaster under his wheels. The dust clings to my ankles. “It doesn’t hurt anyone, so why bother?”

As we hit a straight road, he takes one hand off the handlebars to point out the karang I don’t see. Here, a small one shaped like a bird’s nest, tucked in the overhang of a traffic light. There, rocky teardrops under the branches of a banyan tree. “That one there is new,” he calls over his shoulder, as we pass an overgrown shrine. He points towards its base, where I barely manage to make out a jagged growth the colour of fried egg. “You see it? Fresh colour. A few hours old only.”

There are big pieces, too, as we get closer to the city centre. Once, I thought I saw an alleyway where light couldn’t get through, with space hardly enough for one of the city’s stray dogs, and the remainder all filled up with karang: massive, liver-spotted, swollen.

Later, Razid points out the entrance to a temple, sandwiched between warehouse rows, its grounds overgrown with mounds of polyps. “Now that one,” he says, “that one is hard to clear.”

“Do they burn?” I ask across his shoulder.

“They burn very well,” he calls back, “but the smoke never leaves.”

Past the temple, the smell of engine fumes is no less strong, but there is a different smell now: sea salt and barbecue smoke. On a rusted metal archway, I barely manage to make out the faded words ‘SINGA RAJA PORT’ before we speed past its long shadow. Soon, the buildings fall away to meet the burning shore.

Razid stops here. We’ve reached what passes for the city centre: wooden-patioed warungs, shops selling bright plastic shovels and swimwear, monochrome husks of concrete-slab hotels. On the beach, families laze on thin plastic sheets. Their children toss beach balls. A couple floats just below the horizon, catching the last rays of sun in between each other’s arms.

There’s a special kind of sadness here in places like these. This place was new, once – but now that the money’s spent and the tourists gone, there’s nothing left for it but to sink into its old mother’s embrace, merging with the rest of the city’s karang-encrusted walls. At least the sand here’s still white. Elsewhere on the island, it’d either be volcanic black, or at least a dirty gray. I dismount, feeling the coarse grains creep between my toes.

Behind me, Razid lights another cigarette. “The sand feels different, yah?” he says, grinning between puffs. “It’s not from around here.”

“Oh?”

“It’s all shells. The big pieces, they dig them up from the sea to make new land. Then the sea creatures inside get crushed up and it becomes like this.” He squats down and scoops a handful up. “See? Shells.” The fine grains fall through his fingers, leaving behind residual fragments worn to a calcified sheen.

I laugh. “So that’s why it’s the colour of bone.” And so even a little bit of perfection here is tinted with death: old life becomes sand, sand becomes new beach.

That's how it is, and that's how it will be.

4.

Contrary to popular belief, the end result of cremation is not ash, but motley chips of bone. Some of the pieces are big enough to suggest shapes. Here and there, poking through the dust: a slice of skull, a length of thigh, the rounded edge of a shoulder blade. That was my last impression of my grandmother – as chips of bone sitting in a jar.

This is how we packed her away: the man from the funeral parlour removed her cremation jar from an old wooden closet and removed a large plastic bag from within. Inside were the pieces of grandmother’s bones. With a pair of long black chopsticks, each of us took turns to place the bigger pieces from the jar into a shiny black urn. There were many pieces too small to pick up, some as fine as sand. My brother later told me that the funeral parlour would pour the rest in once we were gone. Somehow that did little to convince me. Today, a part of me still thinks that a little bit of her was left behind, as a little pile of sand at the back of that old closet, at the bottom of the large plastic bag.

The whole ritual only took a couple of minutes. That’s the thing about funerals back home: the mourning is laborious, but when everything is said and done, the body must be disposed of with a certain efficiency – even if a little bit gets left behind. At least with a sea cremation, they are certain that all of the dead are in one place.

But I remember the time the body’s spent in the ground, and how one can’t be sure the smoke of the pyre does not contain even a little bit of the deceased, or how the smoke spreads all over the city and onto the walls and into the karang. Then, in this city, maybe the dead are all over the place, infused into the air I breathe. Who knows? Maybe some of it ends up on the beach as well.

5.

The route we take now isn’t the one we started on. We’re trapped in a tight roundabout circling a statue of what looks like Hanuman on a horse. It’s bronze, tarnished almost black; around it are a circle of cars locked in place by a hapless cement truck. We’re stuck in the circle’s edges, the motorcycle’s handlebars nearly scraping a car’s mirror, its tyres inches from a drain.

Razid glances around, mutters a curse, and steps on the pedal. “Here, we’re taking a shortcut. This hour, the front road is jammed.”

He skirts a drain, cutting across a segment of bare pavement to turn into a road more dimly lit than the last. We cross a concrete slab laid haphazardly over a drain, buttressed by cinderblocks – clip-clop – pass tin roofs at eye-level and walls studded with broken bottles, dodge yelping alley dogs. In the half-light, old houses, new houses and temples blur into nameless buildings with secret pasts and doorways, bearing the traces of conversation and kitchen smoke.

I almost don't notice the karang anymore. Their shapes have blended into the city's, and the city's shapes into theirs. The craggy silhouettes flashing past are nothing more than roofs, nothing more than walls, nothing but the wind and the world and the road beneath my feet and Razid's jacket flapping against my bare arms, into the night and on and on…

There, on the right: an opening between two walls. We take a left, a right, a left, a left again. We bounce past more doorways, now around the backs of houses, down unmarked lanes and old signs covered in dust. The only constant, it seems, is the night sky, its clouds stained amber from the city's glow – and the karang, grown denser, almost scraping at my sleeves. Razid continues, undeterred. And then – before I know it – we’ve stopped in front of a high wall.

Razid angles the bike’s headlight towards it. Its surface is stuccoed, almost unnaturally so. He walks up to it, taking small steps, turning back to me as if in some way, this is his adventure, too.

My pupils constrict, adjusting to the light. That’s when I see it.

From top to bottom, the wall is pockmarked with tiny holes. The surface is twisting, uneven – as if one single undulating mass was frozen in time, folds and all. Its base is mere rubble, crushed under its own weight. Above, barely out of the headlight’s reach, spiralling tendrils extend towards the backlit sky. There's no questioning it. It's karang, prodigious amounts of it, rain-streaked and sun-bleached, a distended bulk of karang crouched between these narrow walls, growing and swelling until it consumed the alley and was left, choking, blindly grasping, to burst into the open air.

For the first time, I notice that the air is filled with dust. Did Razid drive me into a trap? No, he seems as gripped as I am, his eyes also wide. He stands near the wall, but dares not to approach it, lest – lest what? Lest it detach from the walls and start creeping up his arms? No, it’s something else: the feeling of having stumbled upon a naked corpse, a beating heart. An ancient organism turned into stone, waiting in silence. Biding its time.

Razid gestures towards me. I walk forward, careful to remain in the beam of light. The alley narrows around me. Rough coral against my skin. The smell of urban rot – and, implausibly, the salty tang of the sea.

“Come closer,” says Razid. “You have to see to believe.”

I shiver. Will he show me fear in a handful of dust?

6.

He breaks off a small chunk of the wall and holds it in between his fingers. With a flick of his lighter, he sets it aflame.

Almost instantly, it billows into smoke. The smell makes me gag – unlike the alley air, it’s dry, almost painfully so, smelling of old shirts and dead fish – and I involuntarily step back. But Razid’s body is still. “Watch,” he insists, eyes locked on the smoke. The flame itself sputters to a stop – but the smoke continues climbing, casting shadows on the coral wall.

Slowly, shapes form. Just as he claimed, it hangs, but does not dissipate, shrouding him and his hand in a dull sandy sheen. He beckons me closer and parts his fingers, letting the remains of the dust fall into his palm. “Tell me what you see,” he says.

He opens his palm, and I peer in. I see the glint of something gray, with a hint of translucence; in an instant, I recognise it.

“My grandmother’s earring,” I tell him. “She died a year ago.”

“Ah,” says Razid. He’s silent for a moment. “I’m sorry.” He shifts uncomfortably, but keeps his palm open. “This place, it’s… special. It’s where the first of this started growing – the first place where they found it.” He sniffs, holding the pearl out to me. “If you can see it, then you can take it.”

“Why? What do you see?”

“Everybody sees a different thing. Not all of it has value.”

I gingerly sweep the contents of his hand into mine. In the meagre light, the object’s glow seems to shift: first, the colour of a tooth, lost in her final year; then the colour of her jagged nails. I stifle a gasp – but then it’s the earring again, solid between my fingers, pink, still dusted with fine sand.

“Have you found what you are looking for?” breathes Razid. His voice forms little spiral currents before his face.

Dust clouds the air; blinking, I wipe tears from my eyes.

“Yes,” I tell him, “yes, I think I have.”

— M., Singaraja, Sept '17

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