The Rice Field

 

You come out of the shop and back on to Hanoman Street. You try to think of it as Jalan Hanoman, but this foreign language stuff is a real pain. Your purchases completed, you decide to head back towards your hotel shuttle, to be in plenty of time for the last one of the day.

You walk up the road, dodging your fellow tourists – although, really, how can you think of these people as your fellows, with their sleeveless Bintang vests and awful hats? No. You are better than them.

As you walk, you step on several of the offerings left on the street, small baskets filled with flowers and rice and saffron. They are bigger today, and you almost trip. Bloody piles of crap – that’s the last thing you need. You already hurt your ankle, twisting it awkwardly when you stepped into a pothole two weeks ago. It hasn’t felt right since then, and you find it painful to walk sometimes.

You turn onto Jalan Raya Ubud, shoving your way through a crowd of taxi touts. You are so sick of them – how many times do you have to tell them you don’t want a taxi? Dodging the traffic you cross the road, then realise your mistake – those damn roadworks. You sigh, and walk in the road for a bit. The pavements here are awful, almost always broken or blocked, and too narrow even when they’re not. What a joke.

Back on the pavement now, a crowd of Chinese tourists barges past you, pushing you towards a wall. You lean on a pole for support, then see it’s one of those ceremonial things lining most of the streets, tall bamboo canes with a dangling tail, and a shrine at about head height. As you lean, the pole shifts and the shrine comes loose – it falls to the ground. You look around – it doesn’t seem like anyone has noticed. You hurry away.

You recognise the buildings now, you’re nearly at the shuttle’s pickup point. You check the time – there’s still more than an hour before it’s due. Just then, you pass the sign for the rice field – only fifty metres away. You know that part is a lie, but it’s not too far. Why not have another look – you’ve already spent your budget for the day, so you can’t sit and have a coffee, and there’s nothing to see where the shuttle picks up except a boring museum.

The rice field was one of the first things you saw when you came here almost six weeks ago. You were staying in town then, not at some distant resort, and you came across the small alleyway to the field on your third day, as you explored Ubud. Why not have a look, you thought at the time.

Now, you turn in again and head along the narrow path. Soon it turns to uneven stone steps, cracked and chipped and covered in moss. The steps turn a corner, and soon you are hidden from the street and its noise. The path widens now, and you walk past a pool next to a house. Water pours into the pool from a pipe and a mass of foam forms underneath it – someone is having a shower, you think. You hope the water isn’t going to go into the rice field.

You round another corner and come to a small stream. The path lies across three narrow planks laid over the water – you cross them gingerly, and they sag and creak under your weight. Now you are in the rice field. Butterflies flit in front of you, a yellow one, a white one, a very tiny blue one.

The fields stretch out before you. You find it hard to believe all this is just a short distance behind the choking main street. In the field to your left, you see a flock of ducks picking among the rice plants. You think about the crispy duck you ate last week. Maybe you could have that again tonight.

A couple of tourists walk towards you, tall and blond and dressed in neon colours. They are talking between themselves – you think they sound German. You smile at them as you pass, but they ignore you and keep on talking. So rude, you think to yourself. You’re glad you’re not like them.

Further on, another tourist passes you, an older European-looking woman in a bright pink top, silver reflective hat and a walking cane. She smiles and nods at you, and you smile and nod back. There we are, you think. Not everyone is so selfish.

You slow your pace now, making an effort to enjoy the views across the paddies. It is late in the day now, and the sun is low in the sky. You check the time again – just under an hour until your shuttle is due to take you back to the hotel.

You wonder again if you should have moved out to somewhere so far away. This is supposed to be your treat to yourself, a few days in a luxury resort at the end of weeks living in what is basically a slum, but it feels more like a chore right now – having to get the shuttle every day, or otherwise stay in the confines of the hotel.

The basic problem, you know, is you are sick of this place. Sick of the dirt and the poverty and the fake cheeriness. You never thought you’d be pining for Birmingham, but you are. You can’t get out of here soon enough. You regret the idea of coming here to work. You should have gone somewhere else.

The rice field is quite nice, though, apart from the smell, a miasma of decay and rot and dirt. You’re glad you didn’t stay in a hotel next to a paddy – you would probably have gone mad from the stench.

You walk further on, past some farmers by the side of the path. They pay no attention to you. A man on a moped drives towards you, and you step to one side to let him pass. He doesn’t even acknowledge you – so much for Balinese hospitality, you think.

The rice fields stretch either side of the path, some cut, some flooded, some ready to harvest. Near to the path, one of the fields burns, and you walk through the pall of smoke. That can’t be good for the environment, you think. You remember reading somewhere that the rice harvest here is completely tied to the religious calendar. So backwards.

You walk on, past two local women carrying huge sacks of rice on their heads. You come to the point you reached last time you walked this way. You check the time – still a while before the shuttle comes, long enough to go further.

The path climbs gradually now, the streams on either side notched with tiny waterfalls. The water looks grey and full of sediment. You pass a woman washing her feet in the stream, picking carefully at one of her toes. Disgusting, you think, for that water to fertilise the rice.

You look up again. Beyond the paddies are coconut palm trees, fronds waving softly in the wind. That’s more like it, you think – why can’t it just be palm trees. Maybe coming to the hills was the mistake. Maybe you should have stayed on the coast. Maybe you should have gone somewhere different. Maybe you should have gone to Thailand.

A local man walks towards you, he nods and smiles. “Hello, how are you?” he says. He is old, dark skin, deeply lined face, moustache shot with grey.

“Fine thanks – how are you?” you reply.

“Maybe you should have gone to Thailand,” he says, stopping in the middle of the path.

You stop too, and stare at him. “What?” You are not sure if you heard him correctly.

“I said, you want coconut?” He smiles and nods. “You want drink coconut juice, fresh?”

“Oh. No. Thank you.” You stare at him again. “I thought you said something else – something about… Thailand?”

He shakes his head and grins. “I no understand.”

You tell him, “Never mind.” You give him one final look, and walk on up the path.

In the near distance you see a large concrete building, set incongruously in the middle of the rice fields. There are quite a few buildings along this bit of the path – you pass some luxury villas and an Italian restaurant. You curse inwardly – you wish you’d known this was here, and you would have come earlier, instead of eating that awful nasi goreng stuff again.

You come nearer to the large concrete building. Closer to, you see it is still under construction, workmen climbing over bamboo scaffolds, hammering, drilling. The mosquito whine of power tools fills the air, already thick with dust around the site.

You walk on. The path rises again, but not as fast as the fields on either side. They loom alongside you now, so your eye-line is level with the young rice plants and the flooded paddies.

Another moped passes you, this time from behind. The driver doesn’t slow – you are barely able to get out of the way. You yell after the scooter – on it are two teenage boys, you see. Typical, kids. Just the same everywhere.

You check the time again. Only a few minutes have passed – the shuttle isn’t due for forty minutes. You resolve to keep going for a little while. The light is fading, though. You step more carefully, just in case.

Strung up by the path are coconut husks, left to dry. They remind you of skulls, strange thick skulls, smashed and brown. They repulse you, but you cannot stop staring at them. Finally you turn away, only just in time to stop yourself walking into a man on the path. He is another old Balinese man, with a lined face and a moustache shot full of grey.

He smiles and waves. “Hello,” he says to you. “You are lost.”

“Hello- what?” you say.

He smiles again, and nods at you. “You are lost. Where you go?”

“No, I’m fine – I’m just having a walk. I’ll turn back in a minute,” you say. You cannot stop staring at his face. He looks just like the last man you spoke to – but then, you have trouble telling all these people apart.

He smiles and nods at you again. “Lost, lost,” he says, chuckling. Then he walks past you, singing a tuneless song. You stare after him as he walks.

After the man has gone, you start up the path again. The trees on either side of the path are thicker now – it seems like you’re coming to the end of the rice fields. You check the time again. You look puzzled – only two minutes seem to have passed, but you’re sure you’ve been walking for at least ten.

You stop in the middle of the path. The trees around you reach over the path, making it even darker. You make a decision – it’s time to turn back. You don’t want to be out here after the sun has set, after all.

Starting back down the path, you look at the vista ahead of you. From here, you can see down across the rice fields, with the last of the sun’s rays glinting on the water-filled areas. In the distance you can hear ducks quacking to each other.

Soon you pass the construction site. It is silent now. All the workers must have left for the day, you think. The half-finished buildings seem eerie now, casting long shadows over the path, the fields, each other. The shadows seem wrong to you, somehow.

You walk on. A butterfly flaps across your path and close to your face – a black one this time, larger than the others. Maybe it’s a moth. You don’t care much, and half-heartedly swat at it. It makes a circle around you, and then weaves an erratic path towards the fields again.

You feel like something is wrong. You look at the path, and it seems different from when you came up it. You think it’s probably just the changing light. But the banks of the fields either side of the path definitely seem higher than before.

The path is straight. You think back – didn’t it go in a curve before? You wonder if you could have taken a wrong turning – no, you know that isn’t possible. The construction site was the same, and there have been no turnings.

The trees are closing in again. Now the path is going upwards – you stop. This can’t be right, you think. When you came up the path it was all uphill. Maybe it was a dip you didn’t notice.

You carry on, and soon the fields either side are gone – there are only trees. Your heart beats louder in your chest, you start to pant, even though you are not walking very fast. Your palms are sweating.

Now the path has come to an end at a stream. You stand and stare at it – you know you did not cross a stream anywhere in the middle of the field. The only time you crossed one was right at the start, and then there was that makeshift wooden bridge. Here there is nothing, but the stream is only a foot across, and the banks on either side are good solid concrete.

You step across, and rejoin the path. Here it runs alongside the concrete bank of the stream – the other bank is a high bank, lined with trees at the top. You push past some trees, and on the other side of the path you now see only a deep gorge, with just a few bushes lining it.

Soon the path narrows, then disappears. There is only the concrete bank of the stream to walk on now. It is sturdy, but narrow, no more than six inches across, and scattered with leaves. You stop again – you can barely make out what’s ahead of you. The sun is almost gone.

You check the time again. There must be something wrong – it hasn’t changed from the last time you looked.

You look behind you. The path is dark – darker than it should be, you think. You look ahead of you again. Better to go this way, you think.

You are very careful now. On one side the stream, on your other the gorge. You know one wrong step will mean your end.

As you think this, you step on a leaf and it slides under you. Your foot goes forward, and you feel yourself start to topple backwards. You manage to regain your balance, just. You stand still, sideways on the path, until you can control your breathing.

On you go. After a short distance, the path returns. The trees start to recede, and the banks of the rice fields become lower. This is more like how you remembered it. Maybe you just weren’t paying attention when you came this way the first time.

You look up at the sky. The sun has gone now, and the clouds are mauve. You look up, and see the first few stars. The path is very dark – there are no lights here, and there is no moon tonight. You try to remember yesterday – you are sure you saw the moon then, very nearly full. You remember thinking to yourself how bright it was.

You walk more briskly now. You are anxious to get back. You think the hotel shuttle has probably gone – you will have to get a taxi. You don’t care at this point, all you want is to be back in your hotel room with the air conditioning and the satellite television.

Ahead of you, you see a figure. You strain your eyes – you can see a pink jacket and silver hat. The figure is holding a walking cane in its hand. You think it must be the woman you passed earlier – but you think it cannot possibly be. You saw her just as you started on this path. You wonder if she came back into the rice fields.

You walk faster. Soon you catch up to her.

“Hello,” you say, slightly out of breath.

The woman turns and looks at you. It is definitely the same woman. She smiles at you. “Hello.”

“You’re out late,” you say.

“I could say the same to you,” says the woman, and keeps walking.

“Didn’t I see you leaving the fields earlier?” you ask.

“Oh no, I didn’t leave the fields. It was not time yet,” she says. You try to place her accent. You think she is probably Dutch.

“What were you waiting for?”

She turns her head and smiles. “You,” she says.

You keep walking. You open your mouth to speak, but the woman does not give you the chance, and starts talking.

“You are wondering what she means. Why is she waiting for you? Now you stop in the path. You listen to her. What is she doing, you think. Is she insane, you think. Are you insane, you think. The woman turns and smiles at you. How does she know what you are thinking, you think. You think there is a trick. ‘There is no trick,’ she says. You start walking again. You soon catch up to the woman. You scream at her-”

“Stop it! How are you doing that?”

“-and she says to you: ‘I have always been doing it. Maybe you are only listening now.’ You are scared. You want to go home. Then your insides turn to ice. Your heart leaps. Something in you realises, you should be scared – you have good reason to be scared. You feel the reason, but you do not know it. Your voice trembling, you ask the woman-”

“Why should I be scared?”

“-and she smiles and keeps on walking. ‘Oh,’ she says, ‘you can answer that by yourself. Why do you think you should be scared?’ And you think. You look at yourself from that secret part of your mind, the part that is always watching. You think about everything you have done, everything you have said, everything you have thought. And almost in a whisper you say-”

“I am a bad person…”

“-but, you think, surely everyone thinks they are a bad person. Or nearly everyone. Surely you are not really a bad person, you think. You know there must be worse people in the world. And the woman says: ‘Of course there are worse people in the world. And maybe some day we will come for them. But for now, you are here, and that is enough.’ You think again. You think of the expensive meal where you left not enough money and quickly ran out. You think of the items of jewellery you put in your pockets when the store-keeper’s back was turned. You think of what you did to that masseuse. You think of the time you stepped in dog shit and wiped it on the checkered skirt wrapped round an idol. You think about what you did today, and you ask the woman-”

“Was… was it the offerings I stepped on? Was it the shrine I knocked over?”

“-and she smiles and says: ‘Let us say, they helped bring you to our attention. No, it was not the offerings or the shrine, or even the dog shit. We saw you and we looked at you, and you were found wanting. And so here you are.’ And you realise she is right. You look around you – the banks of the rice fields are growing higher again. Now they tower above you. The sky is black now, you cannot see any light, any stars. Only the noises of the rice fields surround you now, as you walk along this path. You look up at the sky again, only a thin strip above the banks of the fields, and you realise-”

“I am lost.”

Partly inspired by Night Vale’s A Story About You.

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