As for Ketut's wife, it takes me a while to align myself with her. Nyomo, as he calls her, is big and plump with a stiff-hip limp and teeth stained red by chewing on betel nut tobacco. Her toes are painfully crooked from arthritis. She has a shrewd eye. She was scary to me from the first sight. She's got that fierce old lady vibe you see sometimes in Italian widows and righteous black churchgoing mamas. She looks like she'd whup your hide for the slightest of misdemeanors. She was blatantly suspicious of me at first-- Who is this flamingo traipsing through my house every day? She would stare at me from inside the sooty shadows of her kitchen, unconvinced as to my right to exist. I would smile at her and she'd just keep staring, deciding whether she should chase me out with a broomstick or not.
But then something changed. It was after the whole photocopy incident.
Ketut Liyer has all these piles of old, lined notebooks and ledgers, filled with tiny little handwriting, of ancient Balinese-Sanskrit mysteries about healing. He copied these notes into these notebooks way back in the 1940s or 1950s, sometime after his grandfather died, so he would have all the medical information recorded. This stuff is beyond invaluable. There are volumes of data about rare trees and leaves and plants and all their medicinal properties. He's got some sixty pages of diagrams about palm-reading, and more notebooks full of astrological data, mantras, spells and cures. The only thing is, these notebooks had been through decades of mildew and mice and they're shredded almost to bits. Yellow and crumbling and musty, they look like disintegrating piles of autumn leaves. Every time he turns a page, he rips the page.
"Ketut," I said to him last week, holding up one of his battered notebooks, "I'm not a doctor like you are, but I think this book is dying."
He laughed. "You think is dying?"
"Sir," I said gravely, "here is my professional opinion--if this book does not get some help soon, it will be dead within the next six months."
Then I asked if I could take the notebook into town with me and photocopy it before it died. I had to explain what photocopying was, and promise that I would only keep the notebook for twenty-four hours and that I would do it no harm. Finally, he agreed to let me take it off the porch property with my most passionate assurances that I would be careful with his grandfather's wisdom. I rode into town to the shop with the Internet computers and photocopiers and I gingerly duplicated every page, then had the new, clean photocopies bound in a nice plastic folder. I brought the old and the new versions of the book back the next day before noon. Ketut was astonished and delighted, so happy because he's had that notebook, he said, for fifty years. Which might literally mean "fifty years," or might just mean "a really long time."
I asked if I could copy the rest of his notebooks, to keep that information safe, too. He held out another limp, broken, shredded, gasping document filled with Balinese Sanskrit and complicated sketches.
"Another patient!" he said. "Let me heal it!" I replied.
This was another grand success. By the end of the week, I'd photocopied several of the old manuscripts. Every day, Ketut called his wife over and showed her the new copies and he was overjoyed. Her facial expression didn't change at all, but she studied the evidence thoroughly.
And the next Monday when I came to visit, Nyomo brought me hot coffee, served in a jelly jar. I watched her carry the drink across the courtyard on a china saucer, limping slowly on the long journey from her kitchen to Ketut's porch. I assumed the coffee was intended for Ketut, but, no--he'd already had his coffee. This was for me. She'd prepared it for me. I tried to thank her but she looked annoyed at my thanks, kind of swatted me away the way she swats away the rooster who always tries to stand on her outdoor kitchen table when she's preparing lunch. But the next day she brought me a glass of coffee and a bowl of sugar on the side. And the next day it was a glass of coffee, a bowl of sugar and a cold boiled potato. Every day that week, she added a new treat. This was starting to feel like that childhood car trip alphabet-memory game: "I'm going to Grandma's house, and I'm bringing an apple . . . I'm going to Grandma's house and I'm bringing an apple and a balloon . . . I'm going to Grandma's house and I'm bringing an apple, a balloon, a cup of coffee in a jelly glass, a bowl of sugar and a cold potato . . ." Then, yesterday, I was standing in the courtyard, saying my good-byes to Ketut, and Nyomo came shuffling past with her broom, sweeping and pretending not to be paying attention to everything that happens in her empire. I had my hands clasped behind my back as I was standing there, and she came up behind me and took one of my hands in hers. She fumbled through my hand like she was trying to untumble the combination on a lock and she found my index finger. Then she wrapped her whole big, hard fist around that finger and gave me this deep, long squeeze. I could feel her love pulsing through her power grip, right up into my arm and all the way down into my guts. Then she dropped my hand and limped away arthritically, saying not a single word, continuing her sweeping as though nothing had happened. While I stood there quietly drowning in two rivers of happiness at the same time.