It has never been agreed upon exactly how many islands rise above Indonesian waters, but estimates average roughly 18,000. Half of them have been named, leaving a lonely 9,000 to fend off rough tides and surf from the Indian Ocean. Havens for birds, marine life and monstrous lizards, most are so miniscule you could stand at the high point on one end and see, in stark relief, the opposite boundary. They are links in a chain, stepping stones for Titans who wished to keep their feet dry on the way from Asia to Australia.
On only 900 of these 18,000 or so islands would you expect to find another human soul. 140 million Indonesians live on the island of Java alone, with the remaining 100 million scattered around Sumatra, Sulawesi, Sumbawa, Bali, Flores and the Timores, et cetera. These islands, however, will remain on the periphery, faint shadows on a horizon of brilliant cerulean. We are concerned with the island of Lombok, more precisely the southern coast, and more precisely still a stretch of rocky, grass-fleeced hills to the east of the resort town of Kuta.
It is the sort of setting that makes an observer scratch his head in wonderment. The green of the hills is the primal green, the first green, accentuated dramatically by the deep blue of the ocean and its translucent, turquoise shoals. There are small villages in the jungle nearby, and a beach popular with the locals, but even with company one cannot avoid a feeling of loneliness there. The waves, perennial, advancing in spectacular furrows like lines of cavalry, crash and echo like cymbals amid the knolls and hollows of this windswept coastline. As if to remind you that, regardless of what they say, you yourself are an island. Nothing but the grass grows there. So raw and barren and beautiful is the contrast between land and sea that, befuddled, the casual viewer might miss the mansion perched on the last hill at the western edge of the bay.
By land there is no way to reach that house. A wide, deep chasm separates the last hill from its brothers. The only approach is from the ocean, up a long stretch of stairs cut into the cliff side. Here, too, the way is blocked, for all those without a key to the tall iron fence, which wraps in a soft arc from one sheer face to the next.
Everything about the place whispers improbability. For the villagers, fishermen and rice farmers mostly, its presence inspires fear and awe. The mansion has stood there since before the village elders first opened their eyes to this world. Therefore it has always been there; it was raised with the land itself. Those who subscribe to animist beliefs claim wicked gods inhabit the home. The shouts and screams on still nights, when the ocean is placid and no wind blows—if not spirits, what? Nothing earthly makes such sounds.
The locals stay away and speak of the home only, if at all, in the security of daylight. Because they understand mysteries manifest in the darkness. Fortunately only the fishermen see the mansion regularly, and at night its windows are always dark. The walls are dull yellow limestone and only from the hilltops, and only then from certain vantages, can the upper levels be seen.
In appearance it resembles a castle, though there are no battlements or portcullises or soldiers atop the walls. Perhaps it is the setting, and the ragged appearance of the stone, which lends the house this air. Certainly there is a timelessness, a wary romance to the place.
Legal documents and land titles lend a clearer picture. Locked away in Mantaram, in a drawer in a musty room of a low, dilapidated government building, these sheets of paper do, in fact, exist. They are worn and yellow with age, and those that had been entrusted to their care have long since passed into the spirit world. But they spell it out quite clearly. These savage lands, some 1000 hectares, were granted by the Dutch to Vincent van der Duyn, a wealthy merchant in the Dutch East India Company, in the year 1789. His heirs, for various reasons, chief among them laziness, sold the land in bits and pieces and ultimately, amid the great turmoil of independence, most of the land was seized by the Lombok government. The stone mansion, however, built between the years 1906 and 1911 as a winter retreat, and the hill upon which it stands, remain with the family, though no one in the family had visited in the last eighty years.
Until on a cold, hard winter morning in Amsterdam, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Kai Bakker, a direct descendent of Vincent van der Duyn, boarded a plane with twelve thousand euros in his bank account and a desperate hope this might turn his life around.
Roughly twenty-four hours later Kai arrived to sensational heat and brilliant sunlight. The shock, you can imagine, was total. Exiting the simple terminal he blinked and looked around. Cab drivers hassled him for a fare. Where to, where to, mister, they were saying; some clutched at his bags. He told them to back off and again looked up at the blue sky.
Walking a few paces away, he saw an older man leaning against the door of his taxi. The man nodded at him and Kai nodded back. The driver took his suitcase and placed it in the opened trunk. Kai got in the back seat. Before turning on the meter the man found his eyes in the rear view mirror.
Kuta, Kai said. Just the one word. And they drove. Out the window, once they had passed beyond the arc of infrastructure, there was little beyond low brick homes and flat rice paddies. Now and again a field of palms thrust their fronds into the sky. Along the roadside Kai saw buffaloes, cattle and the occasional goat, sometimes a shepherd to whip them along.
He had done it, he thought. He had escaped. He had gotten as far away as the world allowed. The hardest bit was over, he imagined. Amsterdam was fading rapidly from his mind, to be replaced with this rural countryside, these brown people and tropical sunlight.
FAn hour and a half later, in the late afternoon, he arrived at his guesthouse. After the owner showed Kai to his room a great weariness overcame him. Kai never could sleep on planes and it had been a long, long flight. He lay on the bed fully dressed and thought about tomorrow. After a while he kicked off his shoes and closed his eyes. The curious map, which he had considered so thoroughly in the months since his grandfather’s passing, found its way into his dreams again. He was a little figure on that map, little more than a hasty sketch in ink, arms legs head and body; no distinguishing features.
It is a great surprise after such a dream, to wake and consider the world in three dimensions. The room was dark. Bugs clacked in the creaking trees outside. After a moment he remembered where he was. He got out of bed and drank some water.
Shortly after he fell back asleep.
He had nasi goreng for breakfast and a cup of Lombok coffee to wash it down. Looking at the black sludge on the bottom of the cup he wondered why the hell they didn’t bother to strain it; if, perhaps, tea leaves were substituted with coffee here and in these grounds shamans could read a fortune. When the proprietor came to remove his plate Kai asked about this. The man shrugged. It has always been this way, he said, as if that closed the matter.
Kai didn’t press the issue. He fished the folded, yellowed map from his pocket and spread it on the table. He asked how one might make his way to Tanjung A’an.
Easy, easy, the man replied. This map, it is very old?
Older than me, at least.
The man nodded. Kai’s response seemed to satisfy him. You can take a scooter, the man said. Would you like to rent a scooter? We rent them here. Good price for you.
Kai took the scooter out of town and followed the road east. For the first time he saw the dramatic green coastline and he looked with curiosity at the stretch of warungs and beach bars, brown locals and long haired Australian surfers. Following the signs for Warung Turtle, as the guesthouse owner had instructed him, Kai found his way to Tanjung A’an, a long, white crescent of sand serving as perimeter to a reefy bay. He parked outside the little thatch-roofed restaurant and pulled off his helmet. He blinked and smiled. No one, no matter how depressed, no matter how lost, can find reason to be discontented here.
This smile broadened as he climbed to the summit of the first hill. He paused for a moment, caught his breath and scratched his head in wonderment. Why had his grandfather kept such a place secret? Though, now Kai considered it, it had been no secret he disliked his own sons and daughters. According to his parents the old man was a crotchety recluse who hardly ever left his beautiful home off the Zwanenburgwal. Kai had only met him once. He had been a young boy, hardly old enough to meet adults’ eyes. Yet the old man had been charmed by the youth’s quiet demeanor. He wasn’t loud and demanding like his mother or his uncles. And therefore the secret he had kept out of spite he relinquished upon his death, to a grandson never given the opportunity to displease him. And now this grandson stood looking out to the blue ocean, over the ridgelines at the series of primal green hills and around at the sandy bays, which even his own grandfather, as far as Kai knew, had never visited.
Kai walked along the heights of these rolling hills until he came, quite unexpectedly, to one of the vistas from which part of the mansion was visible. As we have said, a casual eye might pass over without noticing the limestone walls, so elegantly did they meld into the surroundings. But Kai had been looking for them, and with a mixed feeling of apprehension and great fortune he made his way over the penultimate hill and stopped at that wide, deep chasm which served as boundary.
There it was. Part of him had not believed it. Part of him still didn’t; the place was too majestic, too grand, too beautiful. He stood frozen, immobile, just looking at everything. He fished the iron key from his pocket, looked at it and then back at the house.
Studying that yawning gap for only a moment sufficed to make clear he could not cross. It was at least thirty feet wide, and twice that in depth. The walls were sheer and he guessed, at high tide, that the last hill became an island. Kai scratched his head again and turned around, as if a man with answers might be standing nearby. But there was nobody. The isolation was total.
Sweating prodigiously now, a light ocean breeze overmatched by the heavy sun, Kai made his way back down the rolling hills to the beach. Stripping down to his underwear he cooled off in the clear water and thought about everything, about his ex-wife and his kid, about this island at the edge of the Indian Ocean, about this mansion which supposedly belonged to him but which he could not reach. He floated for a while, thinking, looking up at the sky.
Then he stood, stepped out on to the sand and dried off. It took only a few minutes of standing in that equatorial sun and after dressing ,he walked up the beach to the little thatch-roofed warung. He ordered a coconut and sat in the shade and watched the waiter grab the machete. With practiced, powerful strokes he opened the coconut, stuck a straw into the little hole and brought it to the table where Kai was sitting.
He had bright eyes and a kind face, complicated by a deep scar that ran from his left ear to his collarbone.
Where you come from? the man said.
I am from Holland.
Yes, I think so. Dutch are very tall. You like Lombok?
I only just arrived.
No, straight from Amsterdam. But yes, I changed planes in Bali.
This is a holiday?
You could say that.
Ha ha! Good. Enjoy! The man, smiling broadly, began to move away.
Excuse me. Maybe you can help me.
Kai pulled the map out of his shorts pocket and spread it on the tabletop. You know the house at the end of the hills? Kai pointed in the vague direction of the mansion. Somewhere over there?
The waiter nodded slowly, but he did not say anything.
I walked over the hills, Kai continued. But they end and you cannot go farther.
This map, is it very old?
Um. Yes, I think so. But I want to ask, how do you get to this house?
The man fidgeted, appeared uncomfortable. He looked out at the water and said, why you want to go there?
It belongs to me, Kai said. And he truly believed it to be so.
The waiter shook his head. No light or humor softened his features now and the scar, as Kai stole a long glance, trembled as he spoke:
It belongs to nobody. Spirits are living there. It is very bad, to talk about it.
What do you mean?
Spirits, he repeated, as if Kai were too stupid to understand.
Okay. Spirits. Like ghosts?
The waiter didn’t answer. He was looking at the water, fishing for something.
Look, Kai said. I have a key. This iron key, of a sort no longer made, Kai pulled from his pocket. He held it out to the man, who recoiled as if from a cobra, making a curious series of signs with his hands as he disappeared into the warung.
Kai, at a loss, sipped his coconut. He looked at the water, at the bay, at where the mansion, if it could be seen from this angle, stood.
\He knew there was no such thing as ghosts, or spirits. And he reasoned that if the home could be reached by land, perhaps there would be an entrance from the bay. In this, of course, he was correct. Chance would have it that a few minutes later a local fisherman began pushing a small boat toward the water. Kai jumped to his feet and ran down the beach. He pointed at the boat, at himself, out toward the end of the bay. The fisherman, his eyes dull and glassy from years gazing over bright ocean, rubbed his fingers together and Kai, guessing there might be a lot of this, fished a 100,000 rupiah note from his wallet. The fisherman looked at it closely, then folded it carefully and stuck it in the breast pocket of his collared shirt. The man’s hands were calloused, large palms branching from narrow wrists, ten long fingers bent oddly at gnarled joints, the nails brown and yellow with fungus. He cocked his head at Kai, who helped drag the boat into the water. He stepped in and the fishermen, with a last push, followed lithely. Once he coaxed the little outbound motor to life they set out onto the bay.
The mansion, sheltered from view, revealed itself slowly from behind its rocky veil as the skiff, skipping over light surf, neared the mouth of the bay. And yes, there, like a fissure in the rocky cliff: a narrow staircase. Getting the fisherman’s attention, Kai pointed at the cliff, the mansion. The old fisherman shouted something in dialect over the engine noise. Kai pointed again; the man shook his head. Kai pulled another note from his wallet and the fisherman, after some hesitation, extended his hand. He turned the boat toward the little landing. Hardly stopping, looking back, in fact, to make sure nobody had seen him, the fisherman headed out to sea the moment Kai’s feet found shore.
Kai watched the little boat grow smaller. He looked back toward the beach, a long swim away. But he had come all this way, and he was a strong swimmer. He looked up the staircase, which rose to blue sky, and back down to the lower dozen stairs, cracked and covered in barnacles. Up these slippery steps, which the sea wanted back, Kai stepped as carefully as a cat. Then with vigor, an ever-growing vigor, he mounted the remaining stairs to the gate, tall and solid, through which he could truly appreciate the magnificence of the home. He ran his fingers over the rusted iron… this was his, his alone—if only Miranda could see him now! What a fool she had been to abandon him.
Shaking slightly, he pulled the ornate key from his pocket. Reverently he slipped it into the lock; with a satisfying click it turned back the tumblers. Kai leaned into the gate, the hinges groaning in protest, and stepped through onto the grounds. The gravel pathway, faint under the overgrown grasses, led in a soft arc to the massive, intricately carved double doors of the entrance.
In awe, half expecting to wake from a dream, he wandered the mansion, soaking it all in, looking at the oil paintings, the strange artifacts, trinkets and bug-eaten furniture, all covered in a century of dust; he studied the old black and white photographs of men and women he could only imagine were his ancestors and, arriving back where he started, decided to take inventory.
This is what he wrote down:
First story: Entrance hall and sitting area, six chairs and a coffee table. Living area with billiard table, fireplace, hunting trophies, two sofas and three chairs. Dining area with long hardwood table and twelve chairs. Kitchen. Bathroom. Small bedroom, maybe servants quarters. Imperial staircase.
Second story: Four bedrooms, each with table, desk and armoire. Master with bathroom en suite. Master faces the ocean, full half of second story. One bathroom at each end of hallway. Normal staircase.
Third story: Atelier. Drafting table, easel. Unfinished and unused canvases.
Objects: 34 oil paintings. 16 framed photographs. 31 wood carvings (masks, statues, etc.) 7 trophies. 3 bronze statues. 1 tapestry. Silverware. Crystal glasses. China. Serving dishes, etc.
After he had written all this down he leaned back in one of the plush chairs in the sitting room. He was, he realized, fantastically rich. He could not be sure—an engineer by trade, he had never taken much interest in art—but he believed a few of the paintings were the works of famous painters. Dutch painters, he guessed. Impressionist pieces. Of that he was almost sure. Miranda would of course know.
And thinking of her, he laughed. A cruel laugh that rang out hollowly in the long-empty home. In echo it all seemed to come back to him.
Two years ago he had a child he hadn’t wanted. One year ago marked a year since the birth of his son and, not so coincidentally, the last time he had been intimate with his wife. Six months ago Miranda left with the child to live with her mother in Utrecht. Four months ago they had their terrible fight over the phone, in which things had been said that could never be unsaid, and a month later she filed for divorce. About the same time his grandfather, who Kai had long forgotten, passed away. Two and half months ago the will had been read. One month ago he quit his job, bought a plane ticket and terminated the lease on his apartment. Four days ago he got spectacularly drunk with his friends and for the first time in his life, though he had always lived in Amsterdam, he peered with intent through the glass windows in the red light district.
Two days ago he boarded a plane. Yesterday he arrived in Lombok. And today he realized he was a millionaire many times over. It had all happened so fast. They seemed not separate events but linked effects, a series of ripples from a single dropped stone. If only he had known his life was headed here, to this moment. He would have handled it all so differently.
That sense of awe, now he had a moment to register everything, returned. Kai let out a whoop. He shouted, he bounded in disbelief. He pumped his fists, jumped, hollered and so on. Then, on the emotional roller coaster he now found himself riding, Kai descended to the realm of cold logic. He wanted a view of the sea, he needed to think and in the master, having gone up the staircase to the second floor, he stood for a long while at the windows. Age, dust and rain had blurred the glass; the ocean beyond was a blue without texture. The kind of blue that comes to mind when you think of nothing. The kind of blue that is not so much a color as a state of mind.
It will be a hell of project, Kai thought. The place needed a thorough cleaning, at minimum. The floors had to be swept, the shelves dusted, the bathrooms scrubbed, the walls peeled and repainted. New mattresses, new sheets, and not to mention the lack of electricity. He would need a generator. A generator could fuel a water pump. It rained a hell of a lot in the tropics—surely he could collect rainwater. In a pinch, he could always buy freshwater somewhere. Actually, the water situation made him wonder. The bathrooms had no faucets, so there was no running water. But there must be a cistern. And if there were a cistern Kai could find a way to pump water into the house easily enough.
Otherwise, the place looked good. It had been built of stone, built to outlast the generation that built it. He would have to get up to the roof somehow, just to have a look. And he better study the foundation as well. He would write all these things down tonight. Or in the morning, because now he wanted to celebrate. It is not every day you win the lottery.
Kai went back down to the ground floor. The light, now the day had slipped into afternoon, slanted golden through the high windows, and the home, airy as it was, was much cooler than the grounds, which sloped gently toward the sheer cliff faces. Far, far below on three sides the waves crashed. Kai could see the roiled foam, white scars, as if the land itself stood in injury to the ocean.
On the fourth side was the chasm. And there it was, in plain sight, exactly what you imagined a cistern to be. Kai pulled the rotted cover off and peered down. Darkness and a cool, clean smell of stone and water rose to greet him. It would do, he thought, as he stood and jettisoned the cover into the wide gap between the hills. He looked up.
At a silhouette on the hilltop opposite. Something had pulled his eyes that way. It was a man, who remained motionless after Kai waved.
He was not so far away, all things considered, but he was above Kai, and the light was such that Kai could not see any of his features. It could not be anybody Kai knew—Kai did not know anybody here. Yet for a time the two stood framed, looking at the other from across the gap. As if some battle were about to be waged. As if to move away first were to forfeit some advantage.
Kai shook his head and turned. Before he came around the corner of the house, he looked back. The figure was gone. A tourist, he reasoned. Or a local out for a wander.
Kai convinced himself it was nothing. In any case his home was a fortress. For nearly a century it had remained undisturbed, the evidence inside was plain enough. Only the key could open the gate. And only through the gate could you enter the home. And there was only one key, and that key belonged to Kai Bakker, the direct descendent of Vincent van der Duyn.
He pulled the key from his pocket. Considered again the weight of it, the ornate design, the strange key-head. The polished places where by others like himself the key had been handled. Kai felt he was holding a little fragment of continuity, a golden thread in a tapestry. With this key in hand he locked the heavy front doors. He shut and locked the rusted iron gate. And peering back at his mansion, the stone walls, high windows and rocky grounds, he resolved this was something he would never give up on.
He went down the 108 steps to the landing and looked out at the ocean. The waves had built up, a wind was blowing onshore but the bay still seemed calm enough. Kai took off his shirt and wrapped it around his sunglasses and phone and laid the little bundle on a step the waves could not reach. The key he placed in the zipper pocket of his shorts and, gazing once at the shore, a fair swim away, Kai stepped to the edge of the water and jumped past the rocks in a dive. He swam hard and fast underwater, and came up invigorated. For a moment he treaded water and looked up the staircase. He could not see his home but he knew it was there.
Steadily, so he would not cramp, he swum diagonally into the channel. With smooth strokes and the current at his back he made good progress. When he felt tired he turned over on his back and looked up at the blue and white sky. He would pat the zipper pocket to make sure the key was still there and once he had caught his breath, he kept on.
He swam with good rhythm, unhurried, and covered the distance in a little over an hour. By then the sun had fallen behind the hills in the west. It descends in great haste at the equator and on the sand again, dripping, elated and exhausted, Kai stood for a while watching the light change. Soaking it all in. All his senses heightened. He could distinguish the myriad ways light filters through a cloud.
Hear the curious intricacies of breaking waves and rattling pebbles. Taste the salt in the air, smell wood smoke from a fire many miles away. And he felt himself part of this moment, of this place. As if their existence, their unity, depended upon his own existence.
In that moment Kai felt himself close to God.
Kai turned, startled. But it was only the odd man with the scar.
The man pointed out toward the end of the bay, beyond which the horizon was rimmed in red and gold.
“I just went for a swim.”
“Liar. I see everything.”
Kai kept looking at him. It was growing dark. He wanted to get on the scooter and back to town. Turning to go, Kai said, “It’s none of your business.”
Before he could take a third step he felt himself going down. The man was straddling him, punching him, punching him viciously. Kai raised his arms to cover but then the blows rained into his gut; sand flew into his mouth and eyes and he felt the wind get knocked out of him and he gasped, eyes bulging; feebly he tried to ward the man off as he tore at Kai’s pockets.
The man darted to the water. He waded in to his waist. He raised his arm and before Kai could find his breath, before he could yell at the man to stop, the key was twirling, twirling over the water. At the height of its arc the metal caught the last sun and for a moment, a moment, Kai Bakker, descendent of Vincent van der Duyn, thought it would all suspend. The light winds would cease.
The waves would freeze at the brink of crashing. Birds would slow to a stop and the waiter would hold there, body contorted in the follow-through. Kai would get up and swim to where the key would fall. It would fall into his hands as it had once already and he did get up. That much came true. The waiter stomped back up the sand, yelling a warning at the foreigner. Kai got one good punch in before two men tackled him from behind. He felt the sand, warmed all day by the sun, hot against his face and the blows, the kicks and stomps from a dozen, bare righteous legs.
Jacob William Cox was born in San Francisco and raised in Hawai’i. He travels as often as he can, and has visited wide swaths of Europe, Asia and South America. When he’s not on the road he calls New York City home.
His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-Heroin Chic, The Basil O’ Flaherty, Atticus Review, Belleville Park Pages and The Santa Clara Review.