Orang Laut

by J.Peter Roth

Imagine yourself this way: You sleep in the belly of a boat—naked stars look down on you. You’ve left your village behind when your crops were halfway to harvest. You have only your family. You search for an island to settle, but others have arrived before you or have already been established for generations. So you float. And then you teach yourself to fish. One day you dive. The next day you dive a little deeper, and the next day you dive a little deeper than that, and so on. Finally, you descend as far as the seafloor. The pressure at this depth squeezes your chest and ribs until you have negative buoyancy, and you walk as you did through the rice fields. Here the world is new—silent and slow. You no longer fish, but instead you hunt below the water’s surface with harpoon and knife, on whatever the sea spirits deliver: comek and tripang and kerang-kerangan.

The pulse beneath your skin, cradled inside the intricate caverns of your bones and muscle, is now contained within the infinite throb of the sea’s currents. You want to live down here, but your vessels yawn for oxygen and your throat unhinges to gulp the air above. And so you capture your quarry then rise toward that familiar shaking halo far above the water’s surface, beyond even the clouds.

Now be grateful for the air filling your lungs as you hold the animal in your hands. Feel its weight until your arms grow tired. Look into its lifeless eyes. Let your children and new friends gather and admire the thing that will feed them all. Now look at this fish on the floor of your little boat. Open its flesh, remove its bones. Cook the filets. This was given to you by the spirits. This cost you nothing. You didn’t haggle at the market. Your feet weren’t stuck in mud all day, the sun pounding your skull.

You feed your family. You access something of value to trade at coastal markets. So you visit these villages to trade for rice and, ironically, water. People call you sea gypsy. Some begin to believe you were once the royal guard of a Malaysian sultan, who was driven by storms toward Borneo. You’re trying to find your way home. You do not correct them.

When you dive, you do not think of the warm Sulu sands. You hear no other languages spoken, only Tausug. There is little on this seafloor to offer reminders of the place you fled—the place others have taken from you, killed for. No rice paddies, no coconut or mango groves, no home here beneath the blue, blue waters of the Riau.


Headshot_Author_CNF_JPRoth 20141209J. Peter Roth received his MA from St. Louis University-Madrid and his MFA from Portland State University. His work has appeared in Spork, Rosebud, and The Jakarta Post. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.



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