Returning from the airport at 110 kph on the shoulder where the freeway overpass caught fire last month, Koko said quietly in the direction of the windshield, in good English, “I think it would be hell to be you.” I still am not completely sure what I heard and demanded he repeat it, but he would not and we finished the drive in silence. To his credit, he did not once remove his eyes from the road or his hands from the wheel, but what could a driver possibly mean by that?
There’s an eighteen-inch knife that can be made to stand on its tip with the right words.
At the moment he spoke I had just discovered, by opening first one eye then the other against oncoming headlights, that my right eye reports a slightly warmer color palette than my left. Which is wrong? is the question that immediately follows and the answer of course is that there is no way to know, no way to judge relative discrepancies in something so subjective as vision, so perfectly sealed against outside scrutiny, and that answer creates the smallest but still slippery slope. Would I even recognize the set of colors this Muslim sees, and what is Koko thinking when he shows up early and sits with his back to the hibiscus bush, refusing all offers of a drink and peering intently into our courtyard? It was then that Koko spoke the thing he would not repeat and set me wondering at what point I may need to approach the motor pool about a new part-time driver.
And then the day Koko drove us to the duty-free for more wine, taking a long, empty road until we passed a place where knives and cut stones—did it really happen? Because we have not talked about it since—rushed the interior of the car through small openings in the windows. A brilliant swarm of sharp gems and what looked like old, elaborately decorated knives, bits of dirt spinning off them. We swatted the air and yelled at him to pull over but then couldn’t find anything in the car. Was it Koko who, surreptitiously, gapped the windows and pushed the anti-child lock so we could not close them ourselves? On future drives we’ll insist he take the toll road. Later I did find a single, blood-red stone in my shirt pocket and, without thinking, dropped it in my water glass during a dinner party at our house. It turned all the water in every glass on the table red. I watched the glasses change, one by one, over the next several seconds as conversation continued around me. When I fished the ruby out with a spoon, the water cleared and I didn’t mention it to anyone at the table.
There’s an eighteen-inch knife that can be made to stand on its tip with the right words. Koko has seen this. I know some few things about belief, scraps I’ve picked up as a culture buff, but the little I know makes me nervous. In the Muhammadan version of Seventh Heaven, which is overseen on a daily basis by Abraham, each inhabitant is as large as the earth and has 70,000 heads, each head with 70,000 mouths, each mouth with 70,000 tongues, each tongue speaking 70,000 languages, and all ceaselessly singing praises of the Most High. I learned, just this week, that Koko routinely pokes his head over our compound wall and watches me work at my computer in the courtyard without making himself known, and he told me this himself. How can religious faith ever be more than a second language, one that none of us speak well because we were not born to it? Hiking down a local volcano, we came upon a young woman lying on the ground, writhing, moaning, spastic, praying, hair damp with sweat, her companions rubbing her hands and feet. Sorcery, one of them took us aside and explained. We gave her two Advil and promised to send up help.
Koko burned a piece of paper inscribed on and sold him by the village paranormal, of whom I have heard before and who I believe to be a bad influence and an unneeded complication to Koko’s work as a driver. In the time it takes to breathe three times, Koko’s future wife grew visible in the wisp of smoke and declared, quickly, that by marrying her he would have all he wanted. Koko told me he declined her offer, although the smoke had already cleared and his words settled unheard onto the pile of ashes, concluding yet another story collected during long, air-conditioned waits in traffic jams, and as always I memorized narrative content with one ear for later transcription and with the other tried to isolate small traces of invention or irony in his voice, anything to give me some evaluative traction. I do not think he told her no; I received the clear impression she is at home waiting for him now, pregnant with his spirit-child and cleaning his house. I believe I’m within my rights to say I don’t want her in the car but there’s really no easy way to bring it up.
You could ask for longer life, unnaturally long. You could ask for a child. You could ask no longer to be one of those people who go to the soft outer edge of our circle of light, rummaging about in the near dark and bringing back things I do not need. On most of my drives with Koko, there is at least one point where I catch my hand edging toward the door handle, regardless of the speed we are moving, and this little game makes me smile.
Koko returns to find his spirit-wife sitting quietly in the kitchen, the same kitchen where she once told him she had watched a circle, darkened as if from a reverse flashlight, steal its way around the walls of the room and was this possible? At the time he had said no, but sitting beside her now, turning the key to our car over and over in his hands in the harsh light, he is no longer sure. He has wondered what it would be like to exist within the consciousness of his wife, to stand on his two feet against that typhoon blast, then blindly find the way back to himself or even remember that he should. He watches the tiny play of twitches in the corners of her face and guesses at something fierce and foreign inside, watches until he feels the first niggling twitch under his own skin, a loose thread in their shared skein of immortality. Staring ahead, moisture collecting in her smoke-shot eyes, she slowly comes back to herself, turns, and asks for a report on his progress, his driving.
Long, sleepy Ramadan afternoons find the staff cranky from fasting and too much prayer. Low blood sugar ramps up the spiritual and with it a heightened risk of paranormal hijinks and suicide attacks, and soon they’ll be expecting their annual bonuses. All part of the cost of doing business, but still; we begin to question the wisdom of employing a driver whose actions may or may not be directed by his non-material wife, which is why we keep our driving permits current and our hand in the game. Our self-drive record to date: one taxicab rear-ended at slow speed by our Toyota Kijang (outlay US$30 equivalent), and one entire family on a motorbike chasing us down, the wife slamming her heavily ringed hand repeatedly against our side window. We don’t know what we did to deserve that, it could have been anything, but this sort of thing does not happen with Koko at the wheel and I fear for the Kijang’s corps diplomatique status.
There is a name for the voices we hear inside white noise. Sometimes within the sound of cicadas, of water running, a car idling, I hear the faint, contented murmurings of the souls of the just. This freeway overpass will burn again; I know it as surely as if I had already seen it in the paper. The road to Heaven will burn and when it does Koko’s child will be born, one girl or boy drawn from the ashes of concrete and steel. A red cloud will rise up from the horizon, our bath will run red, the Kijang will throw a rod and overturn with the weight of 70,000 rubies times 70,000, its glittering cargo spilling out into the street. No one will be hurt this Eid ul-Fitr.