Moon Eater & Housekeeping

Bakunawa could eat the moon, but it could not eat Mohammed bin Salman. Every night Manuela silently cried out to it from the fourth story apartment balcony of her employer’s home in Jakarta. But the great sea serpent did not listen. It could not hear her in Jakarta. It could not hear her son in a prison in Jeddah where he would likely die, arrested for blasphemy to a god that was not his own. Bakunawa had grown weak, or men like MBS had grown strong.

She had run out of other beings to entreat. This was not a time for gentle forgiving saints or proud but ineffectual national heroes. She did not want grace, or martyrs. She wanted her son, and for the monster who had swallowed him to be swallowed as well.

She talked with the Indonesian workers sometimes, the ones who also served their employer. It was hard because of the languages, and some did not even speak Indonesian, but they all spoke the language of superstition, and some even the deeper languages of spirits and earths. Some of them had heard of the serpent Bakunawa as well, and how it tried to devour the moon again and again. But they called it Batara Kala, or Kala Rau. The Indonesian workers had their own monsters as well, like Sukarno, who killed all the communists and their families, and the many faceless companies that turned their world into rubber trees. They wanted Batara Kala to eat their own monsters. Some wanted the employer eaten. Perhaps MBS was a Bakunawa too.

* * *

When Manuela walked through the market, quietly grieving, being eaten inside, she met an American couple, the kind that reserves a special patronizing interest in the lives of people smaller than them. They talked with her, asking surface-level questions that still felt intrusive. Why was she in far-off Indonesia? Work, of course. It was the only reason poor people traveled when they weren’t running from something. What was an OFW? It was what she was, an overseas foreign worker. It was what her son was, until he was accused of possessing alcohol and pornography and was hauled off to a Saudi jail.

“God does not like these things,” the Saudi leaders had said from the top of the Burj Khalifa.

Manuela did not tell the Americans these last parts. She kept many uncomfortable things from them. They talked to her to feel good, not to learn things about the people who were the grease between the economy’s wheels. No, no he was not a maid like she was. He was an underwater welder. Good money for him, very good money for the employer. He worked close to Bakunawa in the blurry depths so that Saudi royals could have private islands shaped like palm trees and fifty falcons and sex tourism to her Philippines and Syria. No, her son did not make the islands. He did something for Aramco probably.

The American woman lingered on the word Manuela had said: Bakunawa. No, it was not Indonesian, except it was, under a different name. It was the great serpent that swallowed the moon every eclipse, and when the people drummed and sang together, it was frightened away. The American woman said her grandmother had a Bakunawa in her home country, but it was even more powerful. There it was called Kammapa, and it once ate everyone. But the people inside had found a knife, and cut their way out together. Manuela wondered if they were all still inside this Kammapa, swallowed by work visas and employment contracts and national borders and so many cruel men.

* * *

That night her son died. No letter told her, Jesus didn’t tell her, and Bakunawa didn’t tell her, but she knew it with the same certainty as if the moon had been plucked from the sky. No one would remember him. No one remembered people like them.

Manuela stood on the railing of the fourth story balcony in the heat of the night, still in her uniform and smelling of Rinso detergent and sweat, balancing on the space between her soles and her short heels, screaming out in silence to the silence. So many beings that ate people, but no story ever spoke of one that was full. They had eaten her youth, they had eaten her dreams, and now they had eaten her son. Which one would swallow her whole without a passing thought, as it swallowed lifetimes, countries, everyone?

And then through the earth she heard them: The Indonesian coworkers beside her on the balcony. The Pakistani construction worker weeping in a dark apartment in Riyadh. The Thai woman putting holes in jeans for Americans who saw her children twice a year, repeating their names to remember why she toiled. The Indian disappeared into slavery on a fishing boat for three months, praying, praying. She could see them now. The Batara Kala, waiting behind the curve of the earth for the day he would finally eat something more filling than the moon. The Hinn spirits in the roiling winds of the Saudi desert, looking hungrily at the lights of the Burj. The half-remembered household ghosts and pre-Abrahamic gods, waiting in old stones and young bodies, at last hearing their people’s cries. Someday there would be enough of them. Enough Batara Kalas, enough spirits, enough Bakunawas, enough housekeepers, enough people who knew of a life before the world was eaten. Together all the hidden people of the world, those who hurt and remembered, would split open the Kammapa that had eaten everyone, and their gods and their sons would come home.


FFO: What is the story behind your story?

APK: Millions of Filipinos live and work abroad as Overseas Foreign Workers, alongside millions of others from India, Pakistan, and beyond. Living outside their homelands and often working under authoritarian regimes, they remain some of the most vulnerable, most frequently exploited people in the world. Their passports are often seized by employers, many experience wage theft, some are outright enslaved, and some have suffered every manner of abuse imaginable, all to form the backbone of a global economy whose benefits they will never see. I wanted to capture some of the frustration, injustice, heartbreak, and hope of their many untold stories.

To read the entire interview...

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