Yayuk tucked a gigantic red hibiscus behind her right ear, its blossom half the size of her impish face, then joined Sebastian at a writing desk he had commandeered for use on 'their' verandah. Glancing up from the evenly spaced rows of his meticulous lettering, he acknowledged the effect.
    "You’re beautiful this morning, as exotic and alluring as an Indonesian sylph."
    She smiled for a change, her usual impulse to dismiss Sebastian's flattery checked... or delayed.
    "What means ‘sylph’?"
    "‘A slender, graceful girl or woman. A dainty, imaginary being supposed to inhabit the air,’" he quoted from his paperback dictionary.
    Quite right; delayed. Never comfortable with being complimented, Yayuk preferred her delusions of unattractiveness, just as she preferred to disguise herself in over-sized clothes, to wear her hair short, to spurn make-up, and to keep her limbs, neck, and earlobes unadorned. She did use skin creams, occasionally; one, with the intriguing name "Secret of Seaweed," was among her handful of toiletries. But the accoutrements of femininity were not to Ms. Kertanegara's liking.
    As Sebastian returned to his "novel en route," Yayuk watched him... studied him... adored and detested him. Ambiguous in her devotion, she nonetheless cherished these moments of 'solitary sharing.' He was writing about their trip, about her, which occasioned much uneasiness. He was skinning her alive for all to see, exposing character aspects she failed to corroborate. It was strange being analyzed, fictionalized, by one's beloved—one's first, quite possibly last and only fiancé... who was doing his best... who had granted her editorial rights, a gesture without precedent—and a good thing, too, considering how often he got the story wrong... being so blind to his egocentric biases... so reluctant to admit that most of what he wrote was about himself. Still, she tried to encourage him, support him, help him when he asked, despite her feeling his work was a form of slander. "Creativity," he called it. She called it "rude."
    "I love life," he had blurted out the previous night—in his sleep, she had thought, but no, he was wide awake.
    "I miss you," she had whispered in response, her yearning to be close rekindled like a self-consuming flame. He would betray her, she feared. He would abuse her steadfast loyalty, reverting to his wicked Western ways, loving women halfheartedly, accepting less than that, from each, in return. If he treated her similarly, she would punish him. Already he had ruined her, pulled her out by the roots and made her unfit. Did she hate him on this account? The fire she felt in her heart burned hotly enough—and as coldly as dry ice. If she did hate him, she loved him too, jealously, possessively—but that was only natural. "A love that clings too tightly often strangles," he had cautioned. Perhaps she ought to listen, allow herself to heed... Though how maintain identity and her sense of right and wrong? How submit to Him and Sebastian both, when only He, the Wise One, truly sees?
    "What means ‘love life,’ Sebastian? What kind life? You only know life in this world. People with religion sensing the next."
    It irritated Yayuk that Sebastian disbelieved. It frustrated her. Especially when her English was inadequate to explain clearly what he was overlooking from his intellectual soapbox, his silly ego's vantage.  Faith was not a thing one grasped through strength of mind. If that were true, only geniuses would understand Allah. No, the Creator-Of-All-Things was comprehensible to everybody. All one had to do was open one's heart.
    "The afterlife is a superstition, Yayuk, bred of Mankind's fear of termination. In our 'soul of souls,' all humans are scared to death of dying."
    "Careful, you make fun. Not everybody afraid like that."
    "Everybody, nonetheless, will give up their ghost. Coping with that is the primary function of faith."
    Sebastian went on to elucidate his theory that ninety-nine percent of the human race erred by subscribing to any life-after-death scenario; people ended as worm food; that was that... to which Yayuk listened with mounting impatience, anxious to refute his arrogant arguments, lacking the vocabulary—which irked her no end.
    "Not that it matters," he concluded cavalierly. "If the believers are incorrect, they’ll suffer only an instant's disappointment. If I’m the one who's mistaken, I'll be pleasantly surprised."
    Buta, sombong, dan bodoh  were the words that sprang to Yayuk's mind, meaning 'blind, vain, and stupid.' Sebastian's blasphemy was serious, soul-jeopardizing. Whatever the particulars, life-on-earth was a proving ground for life-to-come. Mr. Lazarus, if he refused to wise up, would arrive unprepared. How to make him realize this was Yayuk's concern, on the religious front. On the interpersonal front, she wanted their love to be equitable—his for her no less, no more, than hers for him.



    Stone House—its sturdiness yielding to the tick-by-tock decay of dry rot, termites, a leaky roof, and corroded plumbing—cried out for attention that its lackadaisical staff was unlikely to bestow. Guests came and went; Yayuk and Sebastian became the veteran residents after only five days, a small group then forming of folks planning to stay through Christmas dinner—self-catered—since meals would not be available, they were informed, on the Savior's day of birth. A scavenger hunt for feast-worthy fixings was therefore initiated.
    Lars, from Holland, found tomatoes, pineapples, cassava, and freshly-baked buns; Daniel, from England, bought beef, Chinese lettuce, rice, four Carlsberg beers, and three dozen bananas; Rory and his co-worker Meg, from Ireland, contributed potatoes, spices, a live chicken (which Rory dispatched and plucked personally), plus a vintage brandy; Kato, from Japan, reimbursed Lars, then stood around trying to look useful; Jane and Ronald, Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Namibia, provided flour, baking soda, milk-powder, mangos, margarine, and syrup for pancakes; while Yayuk and Sebastian chipped in one cabbage, five kilos of peanuts, and a bag full of unprocessed locally grown coffee beans that the postman's wife shelled, roasted, then ground and delivered in time for breakfast, when the Yuletide banquet formally got underway... continuing until late that evening... a fine time had by all...  not a stomach left un-stuffed... which was not to say that each and every dish was a lip-smacking winner: "It's a shame about the chicken," Lars lamented, "we should have let it live."
    By and large, however, Christmas proved an international success.



    At 5:45 the following morning, Yayuk and Sebastian made their descent, leaving Livingstonia with reluctance, chronicling, as they hiked, their visit's many highlights: the bone-weary camaraderie they had experienced upon arrival; that first breathtaking overlook from the Stone House verandah; being mistaken by a fellow traveler for Lady and Lord of the manor; Smelton Mwakajica's newly renamed "Come And See Restaurant" and its savory alternatives to the Escarpment's dull cuisine; their tireless pursuit of a decent cup of coffee that had led them, almost daily, over hill and dale; their climb to Manchewe Falls, its ribbon of water cascading into five lush tiers, monkeys in the trees, children along the trail snacking on the nectar-filled posteriors of bee-size ants, Sebastian actually tasting one as Yayuk cringed in creepy-crawly 'no-thanks'; the Presbyterian church choir rehearsing African and Western Christmas carols that bound disparate cultures with interwoven rhythms; love-making to the tune of deep-throated late-afternoon thunder; the snug quiet that accompanied each panoramic sunset; lastly, feeling at home a world away from theirs.
    Within ten minutes of making it down (relatively unscathed), the north-bound bus for Karonga picked them up on schedule... delivering Yayuk and Sebastian soon thereafter to the site of their relationship's most dreadful trial—December 26th, 1995.


The last time...