The Lighthouse Keeper’s Guide to Pulau Belakang Mati Wen-yi Lee
Welcome. Your first day; your first tilting steps off the crooked jetty. It was nearly trampled by the Dawn, but like the island, it still stands.
You seem disconcerted, checking your watch and looking upward. No, you’re not imagining it, the sun is now behind you. In retribution for the occupation, the jinn turned the sky around, so the sun no longer rose on their backs. You’ll become accustomed to it.
This way: up to the lighthouse. It has stood since before the war. In my earliest days, I kept the lamp burning with everlasting imbiah oil, drawing in the merchant ships that kept the island fed. The seas here are treacherous, as you surely noticed. The lighthouse groans against the curve of the coconut trees, and its white paint has worn to grey, but its light leads boats through the naga’s beating whirlpools.
I never failed to bring ships to shore. That was my set, to guide them past death.
Place your bags by the door, but do not touch the lock. You cannot enter until you’ve paid your tithe to the martyrs.
* * *
In their mainland campaigns, they hoisted black sails, emblazoned with red sigils like sectioned suns. But that one sunrise, they flew the blue flags of cotton traders.
I did not know what I was leading in. I realised too late that they carried the guns of conquerors.
* * *
There is only one place to get your tithe. Near the quay, see the brickwork moneychanger with a faded green awning that drips fetid rainwater onto the sidewalk. The money you get from Old Long is the luckiest on the island.
Old Long and I grew up together. His hairline now recedes like the shore and leaves ripples on the pale beach of his forehead. He’s worn the same shirt since the war, with a tissue packet and bills clipped together in his pocket, slotted behind the cigarettes. He takes smoke breaks every two hours, and sometimes when you leave your cash will smell like nicotine.
Ask for the dollar coin, which has the Eight Trigrams etched into its surface. Yin and yang, perfectly balanced. Old Long says that if you always keep at least one dollar coin with you, then you will never go unlucky. Come back again, after this; he will tell you how the Army of the Dawn tried to take him to the beach, but he bribed them to leave him behind. The coins were lucky at least once.
* * *
Belakang Mati does not have much, but our imbiah trees produce sap that burns better than any oil. It was our treasure, until they arrived.
They started off razing the plantations, but when they realised their value, they corralled the islanders and forced them back to work. When some resisted, they rounded up every man they suspected of treason and marched them down to the eastern beach, where turtles lay eggs in the wet season. One hundred men were lined up in the surf and gunned down. They speared the bodies still twitching.
I heard the shots from the lighthouse. I saw the low tides turn red. The skulls would later dome the sand like eggs.
Meanwhile I knelt before their commander, kowtowing in my own house, and they thanked me for guiding their ships to shore. They left me alive, whole. They said I was too important.
Old Long alone still spoke to me after the occupation ended, perhaps because we had both cheated death, and needed someone else with whom to live with it.
* * *
Now, with your coin in hand, head to the eastern shore, toward the setting sun. Stop here at Aunty Choo’s, on the way, for two bags of black kopi. One to place on the shrine, to thank the jinn for their hospitality. The other will help the tithe go down.
In the hazy moments before the onset of evening, the bayoneted islanders sit on the sand and search the horizon for the ships that once came with the eastern sun. They still wear their coarse pants from the imbiah field. Do not look on them with pity! Show sorrow, or anger, whichever comes easier. Rearrange your face. Set it like a soldier. You are here for duty, as I am. This is my set, to guide them past death.
Make your way to the centre of them. Kneel respectfully, like at an altar. Untie the bag of coffee and pour it into the sand. Let it suffuse and turn the earth dark once more. Do not look up—it is disrespectful, but know that the islanders have turned their heads. They smell the coffee, the stirring scent of breakfasts from when they lived, the newspaper in one hand and their families by the other. They are drawing nearer. Do not be afraid, but work efficiently:
Dig a small hole into the centre of the soaked sand. Take out your coin and press it in deep, as far as you can bury it. Fill it back in with earth. Say, the sun has set.
The sun has set.
There. One hundred lucky cents for one hundred unlucky souls. Now the dead know you mean no harm. They will let you go unbothered, and even allow you to join them to watch the naga coil around Dragon Tooth Rock on the solstices. They died too soon, but they’ve found their comfort since—like most old men, they are content to simply sit and wonder.
With your tithe, and the tithes of those that came before, and the tithes of those still to come, the trapped spirits will pass on eventually. They are simply brave tragedies of an unexpected war. But peace is not my fate. There is no fraction in that coin for me: I, the hundredth and first, the once-lighthouse keeper of Pulau Belakang Mati. I will pay my own price.
Go set your fire, lighthouse keeper. You need not worry yourself with me.
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