Short Story by Natalie Holsten (The Jakarta Post, August 21, 2017)
Mindy steps across the threshold of the Garuda 737, looks down at her boarding pass, and sighs. Row 29, the worst row on the plane. No chance to recline, not even the three inches allowed in economy class. She silently wishes her NGO could bump her to business class. But then they wouldn’t be a non-profit NGO, would they? She reaches her row and sees a large man already at the window seat, his girth spilling over into her seat. His eyes are closed, and his left arm, constricted by a tight-fitting suit coat, smothers the armrest.
She notices that he has a bag where her bag should go. Some people, she shakes her head quietly. She tries tapping him on the shoulder. “Sir, could you move your bag, please? I have nowhere to put mine. Sir?” Mindy asks politely.
She signals a flight attendant for help, and together they try to rouse him, but he doesn’t open his eyes. The flight attendant shrugs, takes Mindy’s bag, and starts to stow it above her.
“Wait,” Mindy says, reaching for her bag. “At least let me get my book out.”
Mindy sits, book in hand, her arms tight against her sides. She’s trying to be as small as possible when another large man plops down in the aisle seat, claiming the other arm rest. There should be a rule, she thinks, that the middle person gets both armrests. She closes her eyes and tries some deep breathing.
At the ding of a bell, she opens her eyes and studies the flight attendants as they carry out the flight safety briefing ritual. They remind her of a set of international Barbie dolls she once received as a child at Christmas — the flight attendant would be the Indonesian version with her flawless makeup and perfect French twist and turquoise blue batik skirt.
After takeoff, Mindy tries to doze, but with nowhere to put her arms or head, quickly gives up and flips through the in-flight magazine. There’s a feature article on the area of Papua where she’s heading. She closely studies the photographs in the article. Lake surrounded by bare green hills. Curly headed children with sweet smiles. A man in a traditional wooden canoe faintly resembles the sleeping man to her right.
Occasionally she studies the screen in front of her and tracks the plane’s progress across the archipelago. It passes over coral seas letter-shaped islands, populated by people groups each with their own unique culture and language.
The food and beverage with the inevitable “fish or chicken” option arrives, and Mindy slowly picks at her food. The man to her right sleeps on, slumping further and further in her direction. When the flight attendant comes through again to collect garbage, the man suddenly jolts upright. He turns and looks at her through bleary eyes. He shifts to stare out of the window and lets out a little moan. As Mindy gives her tray to the flight attendant, she nods in the man’s direction with pleading eyes. An apathetic shrug from the flight attendant is the only response before she moves on to collect trays. Mindy tries to read her book. Barely a few pages into her book, the man beside her mumbles something. “Excuse me?” she says, laying her book down. “Well,” she says, “you didn’t miss much.” He shares how he is going home to the funeral of his youngest brother, the second in his family to die of AIDS. “My heart is breaking,” he tells her. “It is breaking for my family, and all of Papua.” He wants to know what she will be doing. She tells him: teaching people to teach other people how to read. He nods slowly. “That is good. They need to read. They need to learn. Reading is the key to all things. I wish my brother had read more and played less. I wish my people knew about AIDS, about liquor, about these things that can slowly kill you.” He turns back to the window, leans a massive shoulder against the plane wall. And then he is sobbing, quiet sobs that rack his body, soon becoming choked, gruff sounds of sorrow. Other passengers start to notice and shoot annoyed glances his way. A flight attendant, her apathetic shrugs suddenly missing, shows up and urges him to please be quiet.
Mindy turns to the flight attendant and shakes her head.
“He has suffered a terrible loss. Please let him be.”
Mindy rummages in her purse, finds a package of tissues and pulls several out. Gently she taps his shoulder and offers them to him.
“Your brother was lucky to have an older brother who loved him.”
He wipes his eyes and nods. “He was a good boy. Did good in school. Graduated high school and started university. But he got in with the wrong crowd. He almost died in a motorcycle crash three years ago. I thought that would wake him up. But it only made his life worse.
“I was lucky. I got out. Went to university. Even won a fellowship in Australia.”
“Thought I detected an Aussie accent,” she says with a grin. The man smiles then sighs, shaking his head. “But now…now I think I will stay,” he says. “My family needs me. They need guidance. The younger ones, they are tempted by all the wrong things and can’t see a way out.”
They look out of the window and the man points out to Mindy the snowcapped mountains around Timika. The sharp ridges gave way to gentle rolling hills then finally the lake, guarded by a mountain called Cyclops.
“Do you know the story of Cyclops?” He asks her, motioning to the window.
“Yes, vaguely,” she replies. “Wasn’t he the monster that Odysseus and his men had to trick in order to escape?”
He nods. “I didn’t know the story until university. Then I was shocked. Cyclops was a monster — why give our mountain this name? Better to name it Odysseus — the clever one — who helped save his men.” “Well, some of his men,” she says. “Yes, some,” he nods. “They couldn’t all be saved.”
The plane floats above the edge of the lake and lands. As they disembark and make their way through the terminal, Mindy watches him from a distance, sees him surrounded by a group of waiting family, and the death wail begins — she’s heard it before in other places — the unmistakable sound of grief. She passes, trying to be unobtrusive — but the man turns to her as she passes, extending his hand. Mindy shakes it. “Thank you for helping my people,” he says. “Thank you for sharing your story,” she says. “My condolences to your family.”
“Ma’am, ma’am! Taxi, taxi!” Suddenly she is engulfed by eager taxi drivers. She steps forward and claims one who seems to be able to speak English.
“First time to Papua, ma’am?” he asks as he hoists her bag into the trunk of the taxi. “Have you seen our lake? Or Cyclops, our fine mountain?”
She glances up at the mountain, as the car speeds amid the day’s traffic.
Natalie Holsten is an American expatriate living in Sentani, Papua. She has worked as a newspaper reporter and high school English teacher.